What I read in 2015
It’s been a good reading year for me, perhaps the best in both quantity and quality for over ten years, and I wanted to document the highlights and the lowlights:
If I could recommend just one book I read this year, it would be Yuval Noah Hariri’s Sapiens. I wrote a proper review of it here, but in summary, while I disagreed with large chunks of the argument, it was the most thought provoking and ambitious book I’ve read for a long time.
Sapiens is phenomenal, but in other years The English and Their History by Robert Tombs and Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom might have been contenders for my favourite books. The English and Their History is a sweeping, two thousand-year history of England that’s impressive both for the mastery Tombs has of the detail of so many periods and for the sheer quality of the writing. I learned lots, but particularly fascinated by the argument that many the geographic contours of religious difference in the 17th century have the same shape as political and economic divisions in modern Britain.
Superintelligence lays out possibilities for the future of artificial intelligence: how we might get there, how quickly that my happen and what that might been. Bostrom’s relentlessly rational — and deeply learned — style forces you to confront scenarios that sound farfetched today, but may carry existential import much sooner than we expect. It’s by turns terrifying and exhilarating. In a similar vein, though with a generally more optimistic tone, I also enjoyed The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. I wrote a review here. Both books seem indispensable reading for understanding the social, economic and political consequences of AI.
Will MacAskill’s Doing Good Better was one of the most important books I read this year; if fact, when I finished reading it, I decided to buy a copy of it for everyone who joined Entrepreneur First in September. It provides a gentle, but brilliantly and persuasive argued introduction to the idea of “effective altruism” and how you can maximise the amount of good you do with the money and time that you give away. If Doing Good Better gets anything like the readership it should, MacAskill will change the world massively for the better.
I often find it hard to engage with biography, but I enjoyed Ashley Vance’s Elon Musk, which I reviewed here, and Richard Feynman’s Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman, which I’d seen on so many lists of people’s favourite books that I thought I should finally take a look. Given that physics is a huge gap in my education (I’ve done none at all since I was 16), this nudged me towards Six Easy Pieces, also by Feynman, which I found fascinating (but also made me realise that I wasn’t quite ready for the next in the series, Six Not So Easy Pieces). Not quite biography, but a memoir, Do No Harm is Henry Marsh’s eye-opening and painfully honest — if, at times, a little self-righteous — reflection of a long career as a brain surgeon; it’s well worth a read.
The Blank Slate by Stephen Pinker was another book that people I respect have always mentioned as a must-read, so I picked it up this year, though I was quite disappointed. The book explores important and interesting ideas, but these — I think — could be condensed to a much shorter and more effective piece if the polemic and attacks on critics was dispensed with. Similarly flawed was The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker. I loved the first third or so — a hugely ambitious and impressive survey of western literature through the lens of (you guessed it) seven basic plots. But after that, the argument becomes highly repetitive, tortured and reactionary.
I had a mini-binge on books loosely about prediction earlier in the year and read Superforecasting by Philip Tetlock, The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver and The Poker Face of Wall Street by Aaron Brown. Superforecasting was my favourite of the three: it’s light and easy to read, but covers a lot of ground — almost a whistlestop tour of the highlights of the last 50 years of social science — through the medium of Tetlock’s IARPA-sponsored forecasting competitions. Highly recommended.
The Invention of the Modern World by Alan Macfarlane is published in book form, but is actually a set of lectures that Macfarlane, a historian, gave at Tsinghua University in 2011 on how and why the West developed as it did. It’s an unashamedly anglophile argument and is fascinating on how the peculiarities of British culture and society laid the foundations for the industrial revolution.
Finally, while the style and tone of Fierce Leadership by Susan Scott is deeply irritating, it’s one of the few management books I’ve read that has sensible — but not totally obvious — advice that I’ve actually put into practice. Alice has written more about why it’s been useful for us here.
I had two single author binges this year, so the fiction list should really be divided in “Books by Brandon Sanderson”, “Books by Agatha Christie” and “Other”. I’ll start with “Other”:
I think The Martian by Andy Weir was probably the piece of fiction that I most enjoyed this year, though it’s been praised to death by so many people that I’ll simply say that it’s excellent and move on to wholeheartedly recommend Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Station Eleven has an unusual premise: it’s largely about the mission to the keep the works of Shakespeare alive in a post-apocalpytic world in which a flu epidemic has killed 99% of the world’s population. If that doesn’t sound fun, read it anyway. It’s beautiful, terrifying and understated. A close second (third) was Karen Joy Fowler’s We’re All Completely Beside Ourselves. It is, alas, almost impossible to summarise without spoiling, but I can say it is an extraordinary — and doubtless the most unusual — family drama.
After those, you may want something much lighter and I loved the hilarious The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (and also, though not quite as much, its sequel, The Rosie Effect). I also enjoyed (late to the party) The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid and Unburied by Charles Paliser (it’s good, but his masterpiece is The Quincunx, an epic, Victorian-style mystery and one of my favourite novels).
Less successful for me this year were The Devil’s Detective by Simon Kurt Unsworth and All That Is by James Salter. The Devil’s Detective has a promising premise: a murder mystery set in hell (I’m very partial to a good murder mystery — see below), but it feels as though there’s just too much work to do establishing the author’s particular vision of hell to make the plot work. All That Is is an unhurried, beautifully written tour through the life of a post-war American and his circle of friends, lovers and acquaintances. I’m a big fan of Philip Roth and his takes on this genre, but for me All That Is is ultimately too light and has too little plot to be really satisfying.
Brandon Sanderson was my fiction find of the year (thanks to my wife, Emily). If you love A Song of Ice and Fire, but hate how long it takes for each new book to come out, Brandon Sanderson is basically an extraordinarily prolific — and I think even more gifted — version of G.R.R. Martin. I started on The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance, the first two volumes of his planned 10(!)-part Stormlight Archive series. They’re hugely gripping and the world in which they’re set manages to be unique and compelling (neither a Lord of the Rings nor a Game of Thrones copycat), which is all the more impressive once you start on his other books and realise he can conjure these settings up with remarkable consistency.
After these two, I read the Mistborn Trilogy (The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, The Hero of Ages), set in a completely different but equally intriguing world — which were my favourite so far (and would make an amazing GoT-style HBO show — though the spinoff The Alloy of Law was disappointing in comparison. Elantris is also very good, though less expansive and sweeping than the other two series.
The best news is that Sanderson seems to publish a couple of books a year, so there’s never too long to wait for the next one.
Murder mysteries and especially Agatha Christie are my favourite guilty pleasures and I indulged myself to an unprecedented level this year, partly because I ended up taking a lot of long flights. I read ten Agatha Christies — Dead Man’s Folly, Curtain, Sad Cypress, The Hollow, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, Death in the Clouds, The ABC Murders, Endless Night, Peril at End House and At Bertram’s Hotel. Of these, the ones I enjoyed most were Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, The ABC Murders and Endless Night (though these are not her very best; her best two, for me, are The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and And Then There Were None).
One final note is that over 90% of these I read on the Kindle. Increasingly, I find print books very frustrating (especially non-fiction, where the ability to make searchable notes is a game changer). That said, over the last two years I’ve amassed a serious pile of not-yet-read print books as presents (Why won’t Amazon let you buy people Kindle books?) and one of my resolutions for 2016 is to make some serious headway through those. I’m looking forward to reporting back at the end of 2016.
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