2017 — a few books worth reading

I appreciate how books give me an insight inside another person’s world; how they see the reality, what’s their take on life. In the world of poses and pictures, there is an intimacy and privilege to reading books and a courage in writing them.

Here is a short list of books that I appreciated in 2017 — regardless of their publish date — and a short reason why.

  1. The Gene: An Intimate History — Siddartha Mukherjee

Prior to reading this, I would think an adjective “beautiful” sounds strange when used to describe a book. But The Gene: An Intimate History is a beautiful book. Here, personal mixes with objective, forces of the nature and evolution are up against person’s capacity and will to make her own choices. History of genetics and its discoveries becomes a fascinating description of a great conflict between what’s given and hard-coded and what can be chosen, embodied in each and everyone of us. Thus, what could have been merely a good popular science book, becomes a touching story of our lives, choices, possibilities and conflicts.

One of those rare cases, when a book makes you a bit more educated, lets you reflect on your life and is a stunning read, with its beautiful language and great style — and all that at the same time! Left me speechless.

2. Life 3.0 — Max Tegmark

Gave me a feeling that I am able to watch something powerful and meaningful being born: universal artificial intelligence. Above all, reminder of responsibilities we all have to our ancestors. After reading, you cannot argue that we are on the edge of a change, related to emergence of what Max Tegmark calls Life 3.0. Or can you?

A great description of questions left to answer, possibilities, choices, difficulties - related to AI. If you ever wondered why there is so much fuss about some program winning in Go, that’s the book for you.

3. When Breath Becomes Air — Paul Kalanithi

In between Facebook and twitter posts, blogs, podcasts, conferences, people furiously creating stuff, all (more or less genuine) creativity, innovation and people who seem to never be tired or discouraged it’s easy to think that we have time. You can find everything in the Internet, but that doesn’t mean that you have time for everything. If you ever need a reminder of that — a great book to read. Tells a story of a person dying, and brings back two words that are not often googled: dignity and fragility. There will be tears, but surprisingly, they won’t all be of sadness. Powerful little book, worth your precious time.

4. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future — Ashlee Vance

There are people among us who take risks — that’s a compelling story of one of them. Great read, funny and addictive. If you ever wondered why so many people seem to be charmed by Elon Musk, even if only knowing about him from tweets and news coverage — read this. Helps you appreciate courage, hard work and perhaps will push you a bit to pursue your dreams. From time to time, everyone enjoys a warming story how dreams come true and how one person can change a world, and that’s the right warming story for 2017 (and later), especially if you are ashamed of crying on kids’ movies.

5. The Talent Code — Daniel Coyle

Neat read. Once more, proves to you that there is no cheating: you become good at something by practicing, with time and sweat — but does it in interesting way, with examples and stories. Many of us want (or have to) keep learning new things so it’s good to know how to do that best and what helps, so using experiences gathered by Daniel Coyle in this book is definitely a good idea.

6. Do No Harm — Henry Marsh

Responsibility, dedication and mystery — those words resonated with me after reading Do No Harm by Henry Marsh. Reminder of how fragile we are and how dependent we may become. Moving testimony of how it is to deal with responsibility for people’s health, fate, well-being, personalities and souls.

7. Surely, you’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! — Richard Feynman, Ralph Leighton

There are sometimes those people: brilliant, uncompromising, funny and humble. They overwhelm you with their intellect and sense of humor. When they happen to be a Noble Prize winning physicist, it’s getting even more interesting. Not many of us will have chances to meet them, so it’s great that there is this book-meeting with Richard Feynman that lets you do just that. An old book, but still funny and brilliant as its main character.

8. Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology — James Chiles

With recent news coverage about risks of modern technology — AI, self-driving cars, robotics etc. — it is easy to forget that we have been there. Technologies got adapted, disasters happened and we learned. While we may be facing technologies that will affect us more than ever and faster than ever, there are some lessons from the past that apply. An important book. Even though it’s a book about disasters, I finished it in a optimistic mood: that we, people, can learn from mistakes and are capable of excellency, precision and making predictions. In some ways it’s astonishing that there wasn’t more technology-related disasters; and with this book you can learn what can be done to keep it so.

9. Software Craftsman — Professionalism, Pragmatism, Pride — Sandro Mancuso

The only strictly IT book on the list. I needed that book to help me rediscover both some joy and some challenges in what I do every day. We can’t all be neurosurgeons and we can’t all work on groundbreaking technologies — but that’s ok. We can still take pride in what we do, learn from others and teach others. That’s a book to read if you want to become a professional in what you do and I recommend it if you need a small injection of ambition or motivation to learn and improve. While it is not a groundbreaking position, it is a good read. And if you don’t have a vibrant software craftsmen community around you and some doubts about the quality and reliability of software that gets produced all around, it’s nice to remind oneself that there is more of us who care in software industry.