Books, 2018

tl;dr book recommendations since the last one

Dean Hachamovitch
Nov 2, 2018 · 10 min read

Getting a jump on writing up the end of year book list. (I guess I missed last year’s, oops, so this one is long).

My intent is to add a little extra signal on top of the abundant lists that are out this time year for readers. I’ll start with “Books highly recommended,” then “Other recommended (and just other) books,” followed by “Books by Theme.” (I’m punting the section about “Thoughts on Reading in 2018” because this was already so long.)

As always, I welcome book suggestions and recommendations :)

Books highly recommended

Simple list up front, commentary follows. Order is arbitrary.

  1. The Iliad
  2. LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media (Brooking & Singer).
  3. Grant (Chernow)
  4. The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II (Alexievich)
  5. Just the Funny Parts: … And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking into the Hollywood Boys’ Club (Scovell)
  6. Rocket Men (Carson)
  7. The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (Wu)
  8. Into the Whirlwind (Ginzburg) (Also check out the independent publisher, Persephone)
  9. With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa (Sledge)
  10. Fortune’s Children (Vanderbilt)
  11. Good Omens (Gaiman & Pratchett) Yeah, I’m late here.
  12. Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat Into Victory (Korda)
  13. A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel (Towles)

The longer version, with comments:

  1. The Iliad. Yeah, I know. It’s on a lot of lists. I finally got all the way through. It was worth it. Here’s how it finally happened: audiobook, on a 4 day drive from Boston to Seattle, with a golden retriever and an undergrad majoring in Classics who brilliantly provided context and commentary. And patiently discussed what was so new to me. The essays about “Leadership Fails as Demonstrated and Illustrated by Homer’s Characters” are layups just waiting to happen. They’d be like episodes of Silicon Valley, just not funny. (I read Achilles in Vietnam years ago; it’s wonderful, I can’t recommend it enough, and it biased how I heard the story.)
  2. LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media. This is the most constructive book that I’ve found about what we’re living through right now. Strongly recommend. There are more academic takes on this (ex Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project (link) and many good one-off efforts (ex link). I found the perspective and context from the authors helpful. Look at PW Singer’s twitter feed to get a feel of the book, for example here. See also The Attention Merchants, below. Oh, and if you haven’t read Ghost Fleet (also co-authored by PW Singer) I recommended that strongly last time I did this book list thing.
  3. Grant. So, from the guy who wrote the biography underpinning the musical Hamilton, a book about a complex and deeply flawed man whose impact and leadership I just had no idea about. I asked A Smart Friend (PhD in American History and Literature from some name-brand place back east) for a book recommendation to help me better understand the mess that is America today. They pointed me to a good book about Reconstruction; I started it and went back and said, “Yeah, no I’m not ready for that. One step before that please.” Strongly recommend. I am so happy I read this.
  4. The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II. World War II from a very, very different point of view. I can’t do it justice here. Suspend disbelief about the subject matter (“but it’s hard, it’s depressing, etc.”) and just start in. Really!
  5. Just the Funny Parts: … And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking into the Hollywood Boys’ Club. The first not completely depressing book on the list, I know. Author is brilliant and funny; book seemed to me a fair representation of uncomfortable truths about their workplace experience and the industry. The style made it possible to get through stories that would otherwise just make me ask “Really? How could that happen in (year)?” over and over.
  6. Rocket Men. Turns out the Apollo mission to the moon wasn’t quite as “planful” as it looked. The backstory on changing a plan under competitive pressure (which turned out to be a bluff), taking a huge risk, and figuring out a way to execute on it… responsibly, with lives at stake. Maybe the most hopeful non-fiction on this list. Maybe.
  7. The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads. The backstory (going back to penny newspapers, World War I and propaganda, the development of radio, on through to today) of the business of capturing attention and selling it. Lots of fun historical detail (ex knowing what they knew at the time, would you have rather made and sold radios or owned and operated a station or network producing content?). Lots of interviews with the author available on the web if you would rather listen to, or read, a shorter version of this.
  8. Into the Whirlwind. So you’ve read The Gulag Archipelago, or excerpts, or One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, or you think “Yeah, yeah, I don’t need to read about this, I get it: ‘Stalin bad.’” This is a woman’s first person account of her experience, as a true believer in the Soviet system, serving an 18 year sentence in the gulag. If nothing else, look at her Wikipedia entry. (Pls see bonus recommendation about a very cool bookstore and publisher at the end of this section…)
  9. With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa. Blunt memoir of combat; there is no romanticizing or glorifying in here. Strongly recommend. Also interesting is reading about his transition after combat to scientist and faculty member.
  10. Fortune’s Children. Fun and easy read, with lots of face-palming: the story of how few generations it took to squander the world’s biggest fortune was fascinating… and I think there are basic lessons for the rest of us.
  11. Good Omens. Yeah, I know I’m late here. This was just… fun. Especially in contrast with the other books I read.
  12. Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat Into Victory. Amazing storyteller on how France fell and the almost-destruction of the UK forces with lots of personal stories (his family’s as well as everyone else’s, from world leaders to minor characters… ex, turns out the second in command of the Titanic was on the scene, being a brutally competent caricature of the English Naval Tradition). I don’t know how the author did it, but Korda made the bigger picture make sense while providing so much detail along a very granular timeline while keeping the book super interesting. (Same author wrote a great biography of Eisenhower several years ago, also worth reading.)
  13. A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel. I finally got around to this. It was fun. I can’t not recommend it here. I admit it reminded me a little of Shawshank Redemption, Soldier of the Great War, and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.

Bonus recommendation: Persephone Books (link) is new to me. Their editions are beautiful and feel great. The list of books they’ve chosen to reprint is fascinating onto itself. From Wikipedia:

“Persephone Books is an independent publisher based in… London [that] reprints neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly) women writers. Their collection of 128 books includes novels, short stories, diaries, memoirs and cookery books.”

Other recommended (and just other) books

The first few books here could easily go in the list above. They’re here because I’m balancing keeping the list above short with my enthusiasm for the books below, mitigated by how long ago I read the ones below. As a reference point, in terms of commitment, I’ve bought copies of the first section of books below for several friends.

Radical Candor (Scott). Just go get it and dig in. A really strong collection of mental models for working better with other people.

Hillbilly Elegy (Page). Wow this book got politicized fast. I still think it’s worth reading, and maybe just beware overgeneralizing from n=1?

On Homecoming and Belonging (Tribe). This was a big positive surprise. I expected it to be a slog, or to give up on it. Helpful in prodding things to think through to make our society have a better sense of belonging, assuming we can get past the adversarial (isn’t that a polite word?) moment we are.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (le Carre). Throwback! Really interesting to go back in time and experience the Cold War with low tech and people with strong senses of ideology (in contrast to desire for a new iPhone or better coffee).

I read some other fiction to make up for the non-fiction listed here (as well as the state of the world and news in general).

Altered Carbon (Morgan). I binged the Netflix show, read about the drama behind getting it to a screen, and then wanted to read the original. It was great!

Old Man’s War (Sclazi) and all that followed. Still so good. (Yes, a re-read. Things were dark.)

The Atrocity Archives (Stross). Really fun. Recommend! Good to have another series to jump into when everything else gets dark.

Also:

A Mind at Play (Soon and Goodman). Claude Shanon biography. Fun to read his story, wild how many things he gave us. I wonder how many people’s masters is 100x more important than their PhD…

Death of Expertise (Nichols). Read the magazine article that preceded the book. Then, if you really want to get really depressed, read the book, which is the extended dance remix.

A Room of One’s Own (Woolf). Maybe start by reading the Wikipedia article about this piece. Its core has a good starting point for a conversation with someone who rolls their eyes at the word or concepts around feminism. Just sayin’. It’s an extended essay that started as a talk (so its approachable) and… it’s from a slower-moving era, so parts move at a slower pace.

More Recent Books That I’d Recommend (Just with a Little Less Enthusiasm and Perhaps More Caveats)

The Places in Between (Stewart). I went from “Wow. Great, another elite sociopath signaling something I don’t understand by choosing to walk across Afghanistan” to “Huh, so this is what it’s like on the ground in Afghanistan, especially when you walk across it, unarmed, because well I don’t know why he did this.”

Energy: A Beginner’s Guide (Smil). Really smart people point at Smil’s books all the time. I figured I’d try one. It was… dense. At some point I switched from reading to skimming because density. It is an impressive work and a really cool point of view. I will probably try to read it again.

The Grid (Bakke). So, turns out the power grid we hear about all the time is really a bunch of girds, and really fragile, and this is a very approachable introduction to it.

Data and Goliath (Schneier). He’s awesome. His books are consistent. This was the most recent cumulative update on the “state of software networks devices information and why we can’t have nice things” of his I’ve taken. Worth reading.

In Arabian Nights (Shah). Great stories hidden between a kind of Under the Tuscan Sun meets A Year in Provence, just in Morocco with kids and djinns and magic and stuff.

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning (Magnusson). Lots of positive reviews made me curious. Worth reading, lots of good advice about “it’s just stuff, here’s how to let go of it.”

The Index Card (Olen and Pollack) and This is the Year I Put My Financial Life in Order (Schwartz). Wish I remember where I got these recommendations from. Having conversations with kids about money, and figured I should get more informed perspectives (aka mistakes other than my own).

Anti-fragile (Taleb). There’s a good short book hiding in here. Someone could perform valuable public service by boiling off all the (probably justified) ego, venom, vinegar etc. off and putting out an outline. I was exhausted by the time I finished. Reminded me of meetings with certain former colleagues… enough said.

Marrakesh, Fez and Rabat (Cadogan Guides). For travel, hard to compete with the internet + cel phone. Still, this book did a good job providing background and for the most part “good enough” depth and coverage and a great starting point for what to go off and read on Wikipedia in order to start making sense of Morocco.

Good Calories, Bad Calories (Taubes). Unless it was his Why We Get Fat. Well it was one of them. Reinforced to me that different paths work for different people, there are a lot of opinions, and wow we are still figuring out the engineering and science on this stuff (human physiology around diet exercise health).

We Learn Nothing (Kreider). It’s about the author’s bad decisions.

The Peripheral (Gibson). OK. I get why some people loved it.

Ringworld (Niven). OK. Glad I tried something new.

Started/skimmed

So many write ups about not finishing books that I actually took them to heart. I’m still practicing the skill of “strategic giving up.” I’ll say that I started and walked away from some of these, and finished and wished I’d walked away from the rest. In no particular order. I hope your experience is better.

  • The Craftsman (Sennet)
  • Proofiness (Seife).
  • The Leftovers (Perrotta)… neat premise!
  • Wind Sprints (Epstein). Old school. Some good passages. Also much curmudgeonly essays that reek of tweed and inside jokes about lit criticism and a world that wasn’t that great to begin with and luddite thoughts about tech. Yeah.
  • Gnomon (Harkaway). OK, went on a bit long.
  • Reamde (Stephenson), Quicksilver (Stephenson), Cities in Flight (Blish). OK. Sure. I liked the other books in this genre I listed above more.

Books by Theme

I was somewhat deliberate about not having a “Reading Strategy” or goal. Friends gave me good recommendations when I asked them about a topic, and family members pushed me to engage on topics they care about deeply.

Looking back at the list, here is an imperfect grouping by “theme.” Note that some books appear in more than one theme. (Thanks Rob for suggesting this!)

Our Society, and Social Media

LikeWar; The Attention Merchants; Tribe; Death of Expertise; Hillbilly Elegy; Grant

Russia and Totalitarianism

A Gentleman in Moscow; Into the Whirlwind; The Unwomanly Face of War; The Spy who Came in from the Cold; Gulag Archipelago; One Day in the Life

The Experience of Being a Women in our Society

Just the Funny Parts; A Room of One’s Own; Into the Whirlwind; The Unwomanly Face of War

War

The Iliad; LikeWar; With the Old Breed; Grant; Into the Whirlwind; Alone; Achilles in Vietnam; Ghost Fleet; Ike

Tech

LikeWar; The Attention Merchants; Data and Goliath

Biography

Into the Whirlwind; Grant; Ike

Travel

The Places in Between; In Arabian Nights; Marrakesh, Fez and Rabat

Death

The Iliad; The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning

Science-y Engineering-y Health-y

Rocket Men; A Mind at Play; Data and Goliath; Energy A Beginner’s Guide; The Grid; Proofiness (Seife); Anti-fragile; Good Calories, Bad Calories; Why We Get Fat.

Money & Business

Fortune’s Children; The Index Card; This is the year I Put My Financial Life in Order; Radical Candor

Fiction

A Gentleman in Moscow; Good Omens; The Spy who Came in from the Cold; Altered Carbon; Old Man’s War (whole series); The Atrocity Archives

Corelli’s Mandolin; Soldier of the Great War

The Peripheral; Ringworld; Gnomon; Reamde; Quicksilver; Cities in flight; The Leftovers

Misc

We Learn Nothing; The Craftsman; Wind Sprints

/end

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