Though I do love creating things, I try to push back on the urge to always be producing something; one of my favorite ways to do that is by reading. Here are some of the books I’ve read recently.
Dead Wake by Erik Larson (Nov 2022): This book was an interesting and harrowing read. Larson tells the story of the Lusitania’s final voyage well, including plenty of backstory while also keeping things moving. I was intrigued throughout, and the weight of the tragedy makes me grateful for the relatively peaceful times in which I live.
Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life by Albert Borgmann (Nov 2022): This book may be the densest thing I’ve ever read; its subtitle, A Philosophical Inquiry, is quite accurate. In spite of the difficult reading, I enjoyed the book. It made me reconsider the ways in which technology shapes my life without my realizing it, and it felt remarkably relevant despite having been written in the early 1980s. [...]
Should You Believe Wikipedia? by Amy Bruckman (Oct 2022): I found this book’s take on how we interact online refreshingly constructive. (Despite its somewhat misleading name, the book is about online communities in general, not just Wikipedia.) Portraying online communities as a useful supplement to our in-person communities, Bruckman analyzes the benefits and difficulties of connecting over the Internet and gives thoughtful suggestions for ensuring that the Internet is a force for good. [...]
Evicted by Matthew Desmond (Sep 2022): I almost gave up on this book because it was so heartbreaking to read. By following the stories of just a handful of people, Desmond allows the reader to build a connection to them and feel truly saddened each time life doesn’t work out in their favor. He powerfully illustrates the way that deep poverty sucks the energy out of one’s life and makes a convincing case that eviction is more a cause than an effect of poverty. I particularly appreciated the fact that Evicted ends with some concrete suggestions for helping improve the plight of the chronically poor. [...]
How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell (Aug 2022): I had a wonderful time reading this book. It was interesting, insightful, and compelling, and despite its ominous take on the attention economy, the book still felt relaxing. I appreciated Odell’s in-depth analysis of the danger of our dwindling attention spans; rather than simply encouraging a few anti-technology practices, she examines the importance of truly paying attention in all kinds of different ways. I particularly enjoyed How to Do Nothing’s emphasis on getting to know one’s bioregion, and I’m eager to read more on that subject.
The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau (Aug 2022): I loved this book’s focus on “microbusinesses” – it’s full of stories of people who started businesses with little to no outside investment and intentionally kept them small. Some of the stories lacked detail, but for the most part, they got the point across. Reading The $100 Startup got me excited about some business ideas of my own and helped me think through them – I would definitely recommend it to anyone hoping to start a small business.
Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law by Mary Roach (Aug 2022, incomplete): The first few chapters of this book were fun, interesting explorations of the way we deal with human-nature conflicts. However, I started losing interest as Roach shifted from discussing how we deal with these conflicts to merely writing about their occurrence. Around the same time, her writing style, although initially enjoyable, began to wear on me – a few jokes are funny, but after too many, the humor feels forced. Perhaps Fuzz would be better enjoyed by reading a chapter here and there over several weeks.
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande (Jul 2022): I chose this book hoping that it would shed some light on how to improve the plight of people like my 107-year-old great grandmother, who still lives at home thanks to help from nearby family members but who seems rather depressed by her deteriorating life; I’m glad to say that I was not disappointed. Gawande makes a compelling case, arguing that our end-of-life care systems are too focused on making life longer rather than on making our final years better. I found Being Mortal quite interesting, and I hope I can convince my loved ones to read it and plan for their futures as they age.
The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell (Jul 2022): I enjoyed the way that this book told an interesting story while also raising a tricky moral dilemma. Although the main story takes a more violent route than the Bomber Mafia had envisioned, the book ends on a hopeful note; it’s encouraging to know that technological advances are used to reduce civilian casualties in war. Next step: let’s just not go to war at all because, as Gladwell notes, “all war is absurd.”
The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton (Jul 2022): What an incredible story! I am appalled at the tragic way in which Alabama’s legislative system failed Hinton, but his hopeful perspective and willingness to forgive amaze me; despite having spent 30 years of his life wrongfully imprisoned on death row, Hinton tells his story without animosity. He also communicates an important message about the value of every life. I had never seriously considered the death penalty before, but Hinton’s story provides moving evidence that an imperfect justice system has no business killing anyone and that even the most vicious criminals can change.
Factfulness by Hans Rosling (Jun 2022): It’s both exciting and alarming to discover that you (and everyone, really) have a totally distorted view of the world. That’s the experience I had reading this book. Rosling does a great job of pointing out humans' fundamental perspective problems in a hopeful, inspiring way. I’d say that Factfulness should be required reading for everyone everywhere.
The Last Cowboys by John Branch (Jun 2022): I’ve always sort of wished I could be a cowboy, so this book was a fun read for me. It was interesting to learn more about the struggles of trying to keep a ranching operation going and about the difficult rodeo life. The book seemed a bit repetitive in its description of similar events across several years, though.
The Woman They Could Not Silence by Kate Moore (Jun 2022): This was a well-written book about an impressive woman. I was amazed by Elizabeth Packard’s perseverance and bravery, and Moore told her story in a suspenseful, engaging way. Overall, The Woman They Could Not Silence was a refreshing dose of positivity, reminding me that a single determined person can make a big difference in a short period of time.
Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell (Jun 2022): This book was full of interesting stories and valuable insights – that humans naturally assume others are truthful (and that’s a good thing), for example, or that divining how someone feels/thinks without knowing them well is nearly impossible. However, the book did not feel particularly cohesive to me; it wasn’t always clear what point Gladwell was trying to make, and some of the stories didn’t really seem to fit. I enjoyed reading Talking to Strangers, but it didn’t contain much of the practical advice for interacting with others that I’d hoped for.
The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan (May 2022): This book left me feeling deeply disappointed in the way humans often treat each other. I grew up aware that there was conflict around Israel, but I never knew enough details to feel much of anything about it; The Lemon Tree certainly changed that. Tolan’s account makes it clear that the history written by the winners tends to be painfully inaccurate and should be thoroughly scrutinized. [...]
Braving It by James Campbell (May 2022): Reading Braving It made me feel excited to spend more time outdoors. It also made me afraid of having teenage children of my own. 😬 Campbell does a good job telling the story of his and his daughter’s Alaskan adventures, using enough detail to communicate the beauty and hardships of the wilderness without getting boring.
The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel (May 2022): I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Chris Knight’s remarkable 27-year-long stay in the woods of Maine. In fact, this book made me want to escape from the world and go camping for a bit myself. I found the author’s asides about the power of solitude and why some people seem to need far less social interaction than others particularly interesting, and I plan to read more about those topics soon. The end of the book was a bit anticlimactic and felt too abrupt to me, though.
The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston (May 2022): This book was a fascinating mix of history, adventure, and mystery. I thought Preston did a great job interleaving his own story as part of the expedition to discover an ancient American city with historical context, and he piqued my interest in the pre-Columbian civilizations – I’ll certainly be looking for more books about the ancient Americas soon. [...]
Caste by Isabel Wilkerson (Apr 2022): This was an eye-opening book about the causes and persistent, deep effects of racial division in the United States. Wilkerson clearly demonstrates the harmful effects of not just overt racism but of the unconscious bias that comes from growing up in a society which continues to teach us, whether consciously or unconsciously, that white people are superior to those of other races. I feel that I’ve gained a new level of understanding from this book that will help me treat others more equally. [...]
Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport (Apr 2022): I’ve been working on finding ways to improve my relationship with technology, especially with my smartphone, for several months now, but I haven’t had great success. I think this book may have changed that (although time will tell – it’s only been about a month since I started the book). Newport convincingly describes not just how to improve one’s relationship with technology, but rather how to get technology out of the way and start living a more fulfilling life. I found his recommended digital declutter process quite effective, and the advice he gives for being a digital minimalist is so good that I’m considering buying a copy of the book for future reference.
Endurance by Alfred Lansing (Apr 2022): This is the kind of story that seems so crazy it can’t possibly be true, but it is. I was amazed that Shackleton and his crew managed to survive months on the Antarctic ice pack, two journeys in tiny boats on the open ocean, crossing a never-before-crossed island, and more. Lansing did a great job telling this remarkable story.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (Apr 2022): This was a moving story about the effects of death, or more precisely, the effects of being confronted with death. The book caused me to consider what is most meaningful in my life and how I can ensure that my actions reflect that. I found it particularly interesting how Paul described the way the proximity of his death affected the way he prioritized – given 10 years to live he wanted to return to neurosurgery, given 2 years he wanted to write, and given 6 months he wanted to be with family. That makes a lot of sense to me, but the tricky part is that none of us, even people like Paul who have terminal illnesses, never really know exactly how much time we have left. We can only do our best to fill our lives with meaningful pursuits. [...]
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown (Apr 2022): This book about Joe Rantz and his rowing crew mates might be my favorite kind of book. Non-fiction; centered on someone interesting but not too well-known; told at a relaxed pace with lots of detail (but not to the point that I get bored); and told skillfully as a fascinating, heart-warming story. Basically, it’s a wonderfully written inspirational sports story. I loved it. [...]
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins (Mar 2022): Wow, what a book. I was both riveted and horrified for the entire thing. I do most of my reading before going to bed, and American Dirt caused several restless nights as I lay wondering how people can possibly be so cruel to each other. On the other hand, there are many amazing acts of kindness portrayed within the book, stories of people who hardly know each other but are united in fleeing from terrible situations. I was impressed by the fact that seemingly small acts of kindness can make a world of difference to a those in need. [...]
Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne (Mar 2022): My son started watching the 2011 Disney Winnie the Pooh movie a year or so ago, and although neither my wife nor I grew up caring much about this classic stuffed bear, we both found it quite charming. I decided to read the book, and it was a fun, quick read. I’d love to read it to my kids at bedtime when they’re old enough to pay attention despite the scarcity of pictures.
Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom (Mar 2022): This was a short but powerful book. I found that I kept wanting more and more of Morrie’s wise advice, and I finished the whole book in less than 24 hours. (It helped that I had extra time because my kids were sick and slept lots.) I came away from the book touched by Morrie’s goodness and inspired to be less self-absorbed and more willing to help others.
Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman and the Free Software Revolution by Sam Williams (Mar 2022): This book helped me better understand the values and origin of the free software movement. Williams clearly depicted Stallman’s firm dedication to free software as an ethical issue, and I came to respect the consistency with which he has fought for his values. My own view on free software is a bit more nuanced. I believe that sharing information, including source code, is more beneficial to society than hoarding it for the sake of competition. [...]
The Color of Water by James McBride (Feb 2022): Wow, what a fascinating book! McBride artfully interleaves the story of his own childhood as a black boy in New York with the story of his white mother’s upbringing in Virginia. The book includes many heavy topics – abuse, racism, drugs, death – but moves so quickly from one thing to the next that I never felt weighed down when reading it. In fact, I finished the book feeling both hopeful and in awe because of the enormous success that McBride’s mother had in raising her children on hard work, faith, and love alone. The Color of Water was exactly what I was looking for – a thought-provoking book about someone interesting but relatively unknown.
The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric Raymond (Feb 2022): I’ve heard about this book for years, and I think it’s an open source classic for a reason – Raymond articulates many of the reasons why open source development is capable of producing great results, often better than any commercial counterpart. However, probably because the book is more than 20 years old and open source has already become an accepted success, I didn’t find the book especially interesting; the arguments feel obvious and somewhat unnecessary at this point. But while its ideas aren’t particularly novel in 2022, The Cathedral and the Bazaar did get me thinking about why, despite its clear advantages, open source hasn’t taken over the commercial world. [...]
Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon (Feb 2022): Reading about the early history of the Internet – from the origins of the ARPANET in the 1960s until it was decommissioned in 1990 – was fascinating. It’s amazing to realize that even the people who built the foundation of the Internet had no idea what it would become. I was also struck by the way ARPA functioned – it had lots of government funding and almost as much freedom to choose its research directions – and by the persistence required for each innovation that led to the Internet of today. All in all, Where Wizards Stay Up Late was an interesting, inspiring read.
Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary by Linus Torvalds and David Diamond (Jan 2022): I cruised through this book, partly because I enjoyed it and partly because my daughter was sick and I spent lots of time holding her (and reading) while she slept. The first half, which covers the time period from Linus’s childhood through the early years of Linux, was my favorite part because it told his not-so-typical story in a very relatable way. It’s inspiring that curiosity and determination took him all the way from typing for his grandfather to developing a world-class operating system. [...]
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (Jan 2022): After re-watching the 2019 movie over the holidays, I decided to read Little Women. I enjoyed the way the book began as a carefree, humorous account of the girls' childhood and became more somber (although still amusing) as they grew up and experienced some of the hardships of life. Alcott skillfully composes many short stories into one cohesive narrative and teaches the reader that a truly happy life includes hard work, hard times, and especially love.
Range by David Epstein (Sep 2021): I thoroughly enjoyed Range. Epstein does a great job explaining why, in a world that seems to encourage everyone to specialize, generalized experience is still essential. He doesn’t attack specialization, but rather defends generalization, arguing that a breadth of knowledge is a prerequisite to creativity and innovation. This book was particularly interesting since I’ve been considering grad school.