My Year in Books

A Better Way To Look Back at 2018

Photo by Tom Hermans on Unsplash

Out of the ­10,000 news stories you may have read in the last 12 months, did even one allow you to make a better decision about a serious matter in your life? I try to stay away from daily newspapers and their websites as much as I can, so it’s not surprising Rolf Dobelli’s old piece in the Guardian resonates well with me. News are usually a waste of time, but often much worse (some qualifications apply). By contrast, I’m a big fan of annual reviews. However badly they’re fabricated, they do at least try to filter the signal from the noise, instead of clogging their readers’ brains with the minutiae of politics and related fields. Still, even the best reviews contain a lot that will be irrelevant ten, or even just five years down the road, and have the potential to lead you away from the big picture and the long-term statistical trends. Which is why I love books, many of which have indeed affected my decisions, big and small. In what follows, I present (in alphabetical order) my 2018 readings, excluding papers and articles, annotated with a mixture of thoughts and recommendations that shouldn’t be mistaken for reviews. You’ll find social science, novels, tech stuff and advice on how to run 100 miles. If that’s not your thing and you’re afraid you wasted a click, here’s a summary of Trump’s most memorable 2018 tweets.

Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths

The first one on the list is also one of my favorites for the year. It has many great insights of how computer science can improve human decision-making. Sometimes, I think they could have made their points even stronger, e.g. during their discussion of John Rawl’s Theory of Justice. A cheer for rationality!

American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert Putnam and David Campbell

A book I skimmed more than any other on this list. It has some interesting perspectives, especially for vastly more areligious Europeans, who are used to think of religion in terms of ‘big players’ — Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus etc, and consider everything else as sects. This makes the vignettes they recount at times quite bizarre and illuminating, but at some point, I just lost interest in question like ‘which subgroup of denomination C is most likely to support political agenda item X’. The focus on America gets a bit annoying over time.

On another note, many of their findings venture into the domain of the bleeding obvious (being friends with people of different creeds makes you more tolerant towards religions other than your own — you don’t say!). In the same vein, their story about shocks and aftershocks (contrast the ‘libertine’ 1960s with the ‘conservative’ 1980s) aren’t new or surprising, either, and this is true of a lot of the content.

American Pastoral by Philip Roth

Roth is one of my favorite fiction authors, and like many others, I very much lament the fact that the Nobel committee somehow didn’t award him a prize before he passed away last year. The Human Stain is probably better than Pastoral, but it does have great sections on the problem of evil that go well beyond the typical ‘evil as a product of the environment’ vs. ‘evil as an innate feature’ positions that are sometimes used to characterize liberals and conservatives.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

A quick and easy read that teens and adults alike can enjoy. The lessons it aims to teach weren’t new to me (how a revolution, driven by nothing but noble motives, can nevertheless turn into something more brutal and oppressive than the system it disposed), and the analogy to communist Russia, are all too obvious (including the fight between Stalin and Trotzki, the mass executions with fake tribunals, the rationing of food,…). Not as great as 1984, but a good book nonetheless.

The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life by Chales Murray and Richard Herrnstein

Much has been said and written about this book, either by people who love or it or by those who condemn it. For some, it’s the ultimate exposition of scientific racism, for others, an unvarnished look at the realities of American life. I haven’t checked all the claims and counterclaims that have been advanced in this debate, but my guess is that Herrnstein and Murray make a reasonable point, if one that’s subject to many qualifications. The most important takeaway for me, however, wasn’t so much the discussion about racial differences in IQ distributions that caused most of the outcry, but their observations on stratification by intelligence. In the old days, you could be of limited cognitive abilities and still get rich (or at least manage inherited wealth), whereas nowadays, IQ more and more becomes the sole variable influencing not only how successful you will be in life, but also which people you interact with. If I were a political pundit, I’d probably claim this is the root cause why Trump won.

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall

Executive summary: Running shoes, with all their cushioning and corrective parts, ruined running for humans. (Tip: Run barefoot every now and then, but start very slowly!) That’s because, you know, there’s a tribe in Mexico that runs a lot every day with nothing but sandals on their feet, in the most unwelcoming of terrains. McDougall also thinks we’re natural-born endurance runners because persistance hunting was how our ancestors went about getting meat — human are better at regulating their body temperature than animals who can’t sweat. That’s not exactly an undisputed, scientifically validated claim, to say the least. The book is a must-read for ultra runners, but that’s about it.

The Case Against Education: Why The Education System Is A Waste Of Time And Money by Bryan Caplan

Complete review here.

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel Huntington

I learned after reading the book that it’s not very well liked by international relations (IR) scholars, and indeed often cited as an example of how not to do research. Still, I find it to be one of the most concise formulations of an important IR paradigm, and a skillful attack on liberal universalism. It has absurd sections, but some ground truth remains, e.g. his claim that an international elite (the ‘Davos Man’) exists that has all but lost their connections to the local, agrarian population. He also spells out the decline of the West (almost a certainty, given low birthrates and declining economic importance) and wonders if traditions associated most strongly with it (individual liberty, rule of law, …) can bloom under Chinese (or Indian or …) hegemony. Fault lines, as illustrated by the Balkan wars, also seem to be a very real phenomena, although he often neglects inner-civilizational conflicts to push his idea.

Deep Work by Cal Newport

Simple message: There’s all the difference in the world between being busy and performing valuable work. In the internet age, it’s all too easy to get distracted, particular by our one constant companion, the smartphone. Newport presents some techniques that help you cope with the constant influx of emails, messages, calls and thought splinters that prevents you from completing important projects. Here’s an animated summary of the book. It could have well been half as long as it is, but if you manage to incorporate even just some of his tips, you’re set for a more productive, but also less stressful work style.

The Elephant in the Brain by Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler

Much better than I expected. Simple idea (evolution shaped our brains in ways that aren’t always obvious to us, and most of our intelligence is a product not of our attempts to master nature, but to surpass other members of our species in an arms races for food and sex), skillfully executed. Especially the chapter on self-deception was great (is there an evolutionary drive to deceive yourself of your true motives?), as was their application of the central theme to medicine and care-taking. I found it too long, with later chapters spelling out again and again the same idea in different variations.

Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ by Daniel Goleman

A very disappointing book. His general theme — exerting emotional control is import for success in life — seems like a triviality to me. The empirical studies he cites seem to display poor scholarship, especially because he jumps at every correlation he can get a hold of to prove his point and often fails to hold variables constant. A distinctly anti-modern slant — ‘we’ve never been in such an emotional crisis before!’ — may well stem from a desire to sell more copies of the book. Case in point: A higher number of (registered) depressions might be largely due to the fact that depression just wasn’t considered an illness until rather recently.

I really wonder whether anywhere in the book, he actually tries to argue for the subtitle (maybe it should have stopped at ‘why it can matter’). To my knowledge, he largely ignores the strong correlation between emotional control and (high) IQ. Even if that correlation didn’t exist, given the choice between high IQ and low emotional control versus low IQ and high emotional control, which one should you pick? This questions is all but ignored.

Worth considering: His points about incorporating emotional lessons in school, instead of just focusing on imparting hard facts and knowledge.

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker

I think this is Pinker’s weakest book I’ve ever read (and I have read quite some), but this doesn’t mean it’s without merit. I personally think it doesn’t add much new to his earlier Better Angels, and at times reads like an attempt of a senior scholar to condense all the wisdom he possesses into one big book. You’ll find a scathing review by his nemesis, John Gray, here. Even though on balance, I would side with Pinker, Gray’s criticism raises some very good points.

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling

The first review I wrote was largely negative, because it was too similar to Pinker’s and Ridley’s books that I read just before. Yet discussions with friends and relatives convinced me that more people need to read Rosling. His strength lies in making a convincing case that way too many people — educated Westerners, above all — have not the slightest clue about the big and important facts about humanity. They think that poverty is on the rise, war and terrorism increase steadily, that humankind will grow without limits; they do worse than dart-throwing chimpanzees when asked for ballpark estimates of literacy rates, access to electricity or life expectancy. How are you going to come up with good solutions for the world’s many problems when you don’t even get the basics correct?

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

The main theme of this book is not so much guns, germs and steel, as the title might suggest, but the ‘ultimate causes’ behind the evolution of our modern world (order). In short, Diamond believes these to be rooted in geography — landsize of the continents, orientations, availability of domesticable animals and wild plants that can eventually be used for food production. It’s an interesting history book in the sense that it integrates out all the small (but seemingly important) events like elections, wars etc. to focus on big, statistical trends. For my taste, it’s too much nurture and too little nature.

Global Catastrophic Risks by Nick Bostrom and Milan Cerkovic (Ed.)

Chapters vary wildly in quality and style, but it gave me — strongly influenced by libertarian thought — a sense of how some things just can’t be dealt with through a pure market framework. It turns out that it’s rather complicated to deal with risks that have the potential to wipe out humanity (like a supervolcano, or a huge asteroid), even if they are extremely improbable — what is an adequate response to them? I do not think the book really gives a good answers to this, or even tries to answer the question, but it asks important questions and provides a lot of background information.

How to Actually Change Your Mind by Eliezer Yudkowsky

Some very clever people revere Yudkowsky, but this always makes me cringe. The book is a very poorly edited collection of blog posts that features a lot that’s true but unoriginal (sometimes taken verbatim from Kahneman and Tversky) and a lot of ‘original’ insights that are borderline stupid, plus the claim the mainstream science gets it all wrong. For that reason, I can’t help but think of him as a less influential version of Taleb, another writer with grandiose claims, and an even more grandiose ego.

The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death by John Gray

And odd read about, well, the strange quest to cheat death, all the way from the Victorian Society for Psychical Research to the transhumanism movement of Ray Kurzweil et al. In the end, I don’t really know what the point of the book was supposed to be — people who dreamed of becoming immortal have accepted all kinds of weird ideas that supported their dream? My guess is that Gray, the eternal cynic, wants to show that the desire for immortality is childish, and his portrays of respected scientists yearning for the eternal spirit does much to nudge the reader towards this view, too. Does this mean that death is all but unavoidable? Gray probably thinks so, but I think he has made no effort to support this point — it’s a psychological account, not a scientific exposition.

Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer

A great read for outdoor types like me. Contrary to many of his critics, I do not think that Krakauer glorifies the actions of the protagonist, Christopher McCandless, who died trying to be an explorer in a world that no longer offers unexplored spots.

Just Listen by Mark Goulston

A more honest title for this book might be : “How to blackmail others emotionally so you can get whatever you want.” It’s hard to come up with a review of this book that isn’t somewhat nasty. To be perfectly honest, I think most of the book is utter trash. I couldn’t escape the feeling that there was something very ‘American’ about this book — an attitude that any situation, no matter how dire, can be amended with a clever questions and a pensive attitude. The vignettes he spreads throughout the book (to illustrate his advice) are so comically simplistic you wonder if the author is actually serious. But between all these half-truths, conventional wisdom, the bleeding obvious and the laughably wrong, there are a few pieces of advice worth considering. I just don’t think they justify reading this book.

The Liberal Archipelago: A Theory of Diversity and Freedom by Chandran Kukathas

The book is a response to Multicultural Citizenship by Will Kymlicka, and I might have missed some bigger points, given that I didn’t read the original work. His account is an interesting one, but I’m not sure he offers an entirely convincing account of how a ‘liberal archipelago’ would deal with private oppression. Still, an underrated thinker even among people who most strongly agree with his conclusions.

Nudge: Improving Decisions about Wealth, Health and Happiness by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler

Another book that I was very skeptical of that turned out to exceed my expectations. I can’t really understand why libertarians despise it so much — it has tons of great ideas of how to transform markets (i.e. the choice architecture) in such a way as to make them more amenable to people’s desires. Some sections weaker than others, sure, and maybe more care should have been devoted to how this applied to the political arena (nudging politicians instead of having politicians nudge citizens). And no doubt, the border between a nudge and a psychological manipulation can be subtle at times, but this alone doesn’t mean you can use your favorite slippery slope argument to discredit the whole book.

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

A thoroughly bizarre story about the origins of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, potentially the world’s most influential forgery ever created. By the end, you wonder what goes on in Eco’s mind to cook up a plot like this, until you realize that his only creative addition to this historical account was the main protagonist.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

I don’t know how original this is, and certainly the introvert/extrovert distinction has been a talking point for a long time. But the author makes a great point in her very personal book: We ignore people who aren’t as great at socializing, enjoy standing in the spotlight and be the center of attention, and like exerting dominance over others at our peril. It also has some good ideas on how to deal with being an introvert in an extrovert’s world.

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley

If you don’t know why it’s better to be alive today rather than 200 years ago, why all indicators that make it possible to live a rich and fulfilled life have improved, and hoe far-reaching this development is, the book is for you. If you’re already a rational optimist who believes in the problem-solving capacities of humans, you’ll learn little new.

Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons by Bryon Powell

It’s not a very well-comprised book, containing lots of snippets and ideas, but hardly a clear structure. If you have no (or very little) knowledge about how to prepare for ultra races, this is a good starting point, but some of its advice is dated and potentially dangerous (e.g. the sections on how much to drink during a race).

Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

Described by many as one of the finest pieces of the humorist literature, the book has aged quite a bit, and I found the plot to be a little too forced (in the sense of: set up for misunderstandings that will only later get resolved, but that no one would have been expected to fall for in the first place, such as all the ‘accidental’ engagements that take place). It opens a nice window onto Britain before WWII for anyone not familiar with it, and it’s an enjoyable read, but I’d hesitate to recommend it.

Right-Wing Collectivism: The Other Threat to Liberty by Jeffrey Tucker

This is more like a collection of personal stories and blog posts. No depth, many pseudo-intellectual insights typical of think tank people who write on academic topics (did you know that Hegel was to blame for all the collectivist misery of the 20th century?), but a lot of quotable material for people looking for a confirmation of their worldview.

A Room With A View by E. M. Foster

A novel that I finished with a ‘meh’. Sometimes quite confusing and unrealistic, I was neither impressed nor disappointed by it.

Seven Types of Atheism by John Gray

Gray is a cynic, and he lets it shine through whenever he can. He presents a survey of several different types (not all of which are actually very different) of atheism, which he defines as the absence of belief in a creator-god, and finds most of them wanting. Many of them, according to Gray, are but ersatz religions, because their adherents cannot cope with the fact that there is no sense nor meaning in the universe. However, it is unclear why the types of atheism he embraces (Santayana, Conrad, Spinoza…) offer much anything at all, but maybe that’s the whole point — I find it hard not to label this as ‘nihilist’. His criticism of progress as a secular replacement for the heavenly kingdom of Christianity is a fair point to consider, but I don’t know how arrives at the much stronger claim that the idea of ‘progress’ makes no sense from there.

Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner

How do people become good at predicting the future, and can they even do much better than random guessing? Superforecasting makes the case that there’s a correct approach toward it, and it’s very unlike the typical political punditry that permeates newspapers and TV. Many of the points Tetlock and Gardner make will seem very obvious after you finished the book, but only then you’ll realize how different forecasting is often done today: Vague predictions, no timeline, often guided more by the predictor’s worldview than by facts is how experts routinely forecast today. This book teaches you how to do better.

Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Nick Bostrom

Not the best one on the list, but maybe the one with the most lasting influence. The book really made me think about the intelligence revolution and the potential for disaster that is baked into it, whereas before, I largely thought of artificial intelligence as a buzzword used by marketing gurus. A bit dystopian for sure, but raises valid points, and demolishes many hopes that humans would always remain in charge and could simply pull the plug when they sense they’re losing control.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I was lucky enough not to be forced to read this in school, so I got a chance to enjoy it without overthinking and overanalyzing each and every scene. Do give it a try if you haven’t yet, you won’t regret it.

The True Believer by Eric Hoffer

Maybe it’s one of those books that offered some genuine new insights when it was first published (back in 1951), but today, there’s hardly a lot of fresh material to be taken from it. It’s also one of those books that’s highly quotable, probably offers some direction for (future) research, but lacks a serious scientific basis. References are rare, and when they exist, they’re typically quotes by people long dead. Nowhere does he offer any serious empirical test of his hypothesis. I remain mildly surprised that some people I highly respect (and who cannot be accused of the above shortcomings) recommend it so strongly.

Whole Earth Discipline by Stewart Brand

A book about how environmentalist can embrace growth. The most interesting chapter was the one on squatter cities, something I haven’t read a whole lot about before. I always suspected it, but despite looking like the the biggest polluter imaginable, those places actually economize resources in a way that no village ever could. I also hadn’t grasped the importance of restoring wildlands for the bigger picture (apart from being a nice tourist destination and supporting biodiversity). The sections on genetic engineering and nuclear power pretty much confirmed my priors and didn’t add much new to my view of things.

The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig

A beautiful and nostalgic recollection of the post-WWI time in the Hapsburg empire. It’s also critically shaped by the fact the Zweig was part of the upper middle class, and so paints all too rosy a picture of the past at times; especially the glorification of Emperor Franz Josef and his Danube monarchy (for which he routinely gets praised by reactionaries). He has nice anecdotes about how Europe was like before the introduction of passports, when you could travel to other countries without restrictions, and you can clearly feel the intellectuals vibes of the Viennese coffee house culture that made the city such an exciting place around the turn of the century.

Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time by Michael Shermer

A fun book about a lot of weird stuff that people believe in, and why they continue to do so, all evidence to the contrary. Bottom line: It’s sometimes hard to understand (or better: internalize) on what principles science is built (e.g. convergence of evidence rather than absolute proofs), and a lot can go wrong when you think you found the truth and a tribe that defends it alongside you.

I was surprised to find out I ‘only’ read 36 books last year, so we’ll see if I can top it off in 2019. Some progress has already been made, keeping with my tradition of reading books in parallel:

The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil

Halfway through, and it’s easy to understand why the book divides people. There’s a huge amount of tidbits and research results from all sorts of domains that can be hard to swallow. Futurologists often get criticized for linearly extrapolating current trends far into the future, and Kurzweil is a futurologist on steroids (quite literally so, actually).

The Master Algorithm by Pedro Domingos

I’m about to finish this one, and while I’m no machine learning specialist, I sense that both senior researchers and novices can appreciate the book. For somebody who doesn’t know much about the techniques behind AI, it might be a lot at once.

A Theory of Justice by John Rawls

If all of philosophy is but a footnote to Plato, as Alfred North Whitehead memorably claimed, modern political philosophy the comment section for Rawls’ Theory of Justice. It’s been on my list for at least ten years, so here we are.

As We Go Marching by John T. Flynn

A journalist describes how America’s war against fascism has led to fascist developments in the country itself, mostly by means of wartime central planning. Should be a controversial read.

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter

I’ve read elsewhere that this is every scientists’ favorite book (talk true Scotsman!). Other than that, it’s famous for being misunderstood by almost everyone — at least according to its author, a cognitive psychologist. It might also be the most geeky book ever to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Now for the fun part: Do you have a list of your 2018 books? Suggestions for my (ever-growing) book wish list? If so, do leave a comment below!