Books of 2021

As will become obvious looking over this list, I got a little obsessed with chess this year. As a consequence, I didn’t read as many books as in previous years, since many of the chess tomes took a while to get through (doing exercises, setting up positions on a board, etc).

The Club - Leo Damrosch

Not exactly what I was expecting, but very enjoyable.

Theoretically, the story of “The Club”, this group of famous English intellectuals, but in practice more of an exegesis of mid-eighteenth century London, mainly through the perspective of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. I quite enjoyed it, although it didn’t really have much of a cohesive narrative – it seemed to jump around a fair bit, between people and time periods, without much consistency, but it was all told with a very obvious passion and interest that I was happy to go along for the ride.

The Art of Computer Programming: Volume 4A: Combinatorial Algorithms - Donald E. Knuth

Clearly the entry in the series that Knuth is most passionate about. It was pretty neat to finally get to a volume written in a more modern era; I really enjoyed it, even more so than the previous volumes.

I found the sections on binary functions and BDDs really really cool and fascinating, even if all the “generating random permutations/combinations/trees” and so on was not quite as interesting. Knuth clearly loves that stuff though, so it’s still a joy to read.

Really looking forward to volume 4B!

Infrastructure: A Guide to the Industrial Landscape - Brian Hayes

Really neat book.

I heard about it on a podcast, thought it sounded interesting, and bought it as a gift for my father. He really enjoyed it and lent it to me.

It’s a very cool book – a sort of field guide to the features of the industrial landscapes. It discusses the workings of everything from mining to shipping to power generation to garbage disposal…if it’s made by people, it’s probably covered. Lots of great pictures of all sorts of interesting places and things.

The book is also written in a much more engaging style than I expected. Rather than a dry sort of encyclopedia tone, it’s got a very distinct voice: The author is clearly fascinated by all this stuff and it reads much more like you’re on a walk with this guy and he’s pointing things out to you and explaining them. His enthusiasm is palpable and really comes through.

Fantasia Mathematica - Various, compiled by Clifton Fadiman

A collection of short stories, putatively about mathematics. I found the curation very mixed though – some stories were only vaguely related to math, some had a plot that actually revolved around some mathematical concept. Some very abrupt tonal shifts between stories as well; the first entry is a sad short story by Aldous Huxley in which math is pretty incidental, but most of the following are more like laboured puns.

I also felt like way too many of the stories were about topology, specifically Möbius strips and Klein bottles. Some of the stories may have actually addressed those concepts well (I liked Heinlein’s – And He Built a Crooked House) but it felt to me like most of them were operating on kind of weird misunderstandings that treated topology like a form of magic. I suppose that may be an artifact of when the stories were written and these things were trendy (at least it wasn’t full of stories about Rubik’s Cubes).

Only one story about computers, which was again barely about computers and more about people. It did make me think about Greg Egan’s Permutation City, which is, I think, a novel about a mathematical concept done in an interesting & engaging way.

Pandolfini’s Ultimate Guide to Chess - Bruce Pandolfini

My friend Raj recently got in to chess, which inspired me to do the same and this was the book he recommended to get me started. I really enjoyed it – my problem with chess was that I had no conceptual framework, feeling like it was a matter of memorizing openings or something, and this really helped me develop a sense for what I should be trying to do.

The book is written as a dialogue between student and teacher, which I found worked really well for illustrating how to best think about games and what to be looking for. I’m still very bad at chess, but this book has at least allowed me to play the game, which is certainly a start!

Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess - Bobby Fischer, Stuart Margulies, Don Mosenfelder

Continuing trying to learn more about chess, this book seems to be on virtually every list of best chess books, so I had to give it a go. Very quick read, all exercises on various mating techniques and positions. It was useful, especially as I was concurrently doing many puzzles on Lichess while reading this, the two informing each other.

I would have liked something a little more bigger-picture, but I suppose there are other books for that.

My System - Aron Nimzowitsch

Great book, just what I was looking for next.

It lays out Nimzowitsch’s system of positional chess, which apparently is the basis of the modern style. It provides a great mixture of tactical advance and big-picture strategy, which has really helped me try to develop plans while I’m playing.

To the Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf

Gorgeous, short novel.

I’d read some of Woolf’s non-fiction last year and really enjoyed it, so I wanted to peruse some of her fiction. I really enjoyed this; the character of Mr. Ramsay is a bit of a cautionary tale for me.

How to Reassess Your Chess - Jeremy Silman

Great book, very interesting.

I had tried reading this immediately after the Pandolfini book, but it was too advanced for me. After My System though, it made a lot more sense and I was able to get much more out of it.

How to Beat Your Dad at Chess - Murray Chandler

Pretty much just a collection of mating patterns. Okay, but not really that much more interesting than just doing problems.

The Amateur’s Mind - Jeremy Silman

Yet another chess book; a good follow-up/compliment to How to Reassess Your Chess. Many more examples of the wrong way to look at things, which is helpful to see.

The Rise of the Great Powers: 1648-1815 - Derek McKay & H. M. Scott

A history textbook one of my brothers had used in school.

Dry, but a good overview of the time period in Europe. As I’m mostly just familiar with the French Revolution in this time period, it was good to learn more of the surrounding context.

Chess Fundamentals - José Raúl Capablanca

Yet another chess book.

An older book, so it used the previous “descriptive notation” instead of the modern so-called “algebraic notation” to describe moves, which was a little annoying, but I got used to it. The book went into more depth than its title might imply. Interesting stuff; enjoyed this one quite a bit, actually.

The Republic - Plato

I had started reading this book last year, but got sidetracked by reading a bunch of chess books. I began reading it because I’d been reading a bunch of modern philosophy texts, but I wanted to get more of a grounding in how all this stuff started. This was…interesting from a historical standpoint, but one can really see how much philosophical thought as progressed since then.

Armor - John Steakley

A re-read, but I originally read it years ago and didn’t recall anything past the first chapter. I was actually struck by how melancholy and anti-army the book was, given its reputation as a popular military book and the blurbs making it sound like an unironic Starship Troopers.

Think Like a Grandmaster - Alexander Kotov

Recommended to me by my coach. It examines the thought processes of elite players and was quite fascinating to try to gain insight into how grandmasters approach the game. A good read and the exercises helped reinforce the things I need to get better at.

Software Design for Flexibility - Chris Hanson and Gerald Jay Sussman

Interesting read, if not exactly what I was expecting from the introduction. Seemed like it was mainly going to be about how techniques like unification, layered data systems, generic functions and the like can be helpful for making software design flexible. It ended up being more about how to implement those things, with then some smaller examples of application.

Very interesting and useful, to be sure, but I would really have liked to see more about how these systems can be used. Maybe that’s just because, after using Prolog for a while, many of the techniques shown aren’t particular novel in and of themselves.

The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View - Ellen Meiksins Wood

Short, but very good book. It describes how capitalism wasn’t a historical inevitability, but a very contingent consequence of a very particular series of events. Quite interesting, really enjoyed it a lot.

The Power of Pawns - Jörg Hickl

Yet another chess book.

Took quite a while to get through this one; it wasn’t long, but had lots of games to play through and analyze. Useful though; provides a good framework for thinking about pawns and pawn structure, which is a bit part of the game.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy - J. R. R. Tolkien

Re-read of the trilogy, yet again; this time inspirited by reading some truly fantastic analyses of the big battles. Fun as always.

I actually read through all the appendices this time – they’re fascinating, I don’t know how I slept on them for so long! They fill in so much detail, very happy I perused them.

In A Sunburned Country - Bill Bryson

Re-read; just a funny book to decompress.

Red Plenty - Francis Spufford

Great read, very interesting approach to telling a historical story. It really made me sad for missed opportunities, squandered hopes…

The Years of Lyndon Johnson Vol. 2: Means of Ascent - Robert A. Caro

Amazing history. Reading the first volume made me very angry about Lyndon Johnson and what is covered in this one takes it to another level.

Caro is certainly one of the greatest biographers of all time and this series is incredible for the depth he goes into and the history unearthed in the process.

Revising Prose - Richard A. Lanham

Recommended to me by a good friend. Very entertaining and practical advice for improving writing in the editing process.