Welcome to Part 2 of my ranking of books I read this year. Upon examining my preliminary rankings, I realized that (outside the top 10) different parts of the ranking could (roughly) be categorized by book subject. The overall rankings are still (for the most part) accurate, but I did some slight tweaking to form more cohesive topics.
Perhaps unsurprisingly if you know me, this list is also almost exclusively non-fiction books (with the exception of the #11), with histories, biographies, and books about technology dominating. The ranking in part 3 is a bit more diverse.
On race and gender
11. The Power, by Naomi Alderman. A fiction book whose premise is that, roughly around present day, women gain the ability to shock people (electrically), i.e. they gain the physical advantage over men. I’m not sure I can add much about this book that others haven’t already written (e.g. https://www.vogue.com/article/the-power-naomi-alderman summarizes the book well, and represents fairly well my thoughts on the book’s message about our world). I went into it fairly blind as to its plot, and I won’t spoil it here. However, I was surprised at how dystopian it became — the central idea is that power corrupts inevitably, always, and that it is those without power who suffer most when those seeking power fight. It cautions that even if someone is seeking power to make right grievous, undeniable wrongs, that once in power they can perpetrate the exact same wrongs.
12. Minority leader, by Stacy Abrams. Expecting a well-timed political memoir and instead got a wonderful part self-help book, part leadership manual. The “minority leader” in the title primarily refers not to her position in the Georgia State Legislature, but rather the subject of the book: how to be a leader from a minority position. Knowing very little else about her except this book and skimming her gubernatorial campaign’s issues pages, I want her to be president someday.
13. So you want to talk about race, by Ijeoma Oluo. Challenging, forceful, necessary book to read on race. A central thesis is that while your lived experiences are true, so are those of others; you can’t deny someone else’s telling of what matters to them because it doesn’t comport with your own. This thesis, when applied to race, leads to several conclusions with which your gut may not instantly agree but are important to hear and consider. Regarding whether something is about race: “it’s about race if a person of color says it’s about race.” Whether seemingly minor micro-aggressions should be confronted: they should, because they add up; to someone committing such an action, it may be only a small thing. To someone on the receiving end, it may be a long line of small things that together cause pain.
14. In the Shadow of statues, by Mitch Landrieu. Memoir, rumination on race, history of New Orleans, and discussion on Confederate statues by the former Lt. Governor of Louisiana and Mayor of New Orleans. He juxtaposes his own privileged life as part of the political family of New Orleans (his father as mayor helped desegregate New Orleans, and his sister was a senator) with that of many African Americans in New Orleans. The most powerful part of the book, perhaps unsurprisingly given the title, is Landrieu’s telling of what happened when he decided to remove the confederate statues and memorials in New Orleans — including one of Robert E Lee and an obelisk commemorating a white race riot that killed government employees, including police officers. Apparently, contractors who considered bidding on the removal project were threatened, many of the biggest contractors in the city refused to bid (only one ended up bidding on the project, a rarity), a car owned by one of the removal companies was bombed, sand was poured into the gasoline tank of removal equipment, and those removing the statues had to go as far as hide the names of their companies and their faces (from drones with HD cameras!) so as not face further retaliation. In this telling, Landrieu makes it clear that the White supremacy that erected the statues during the backlash to Reconstruction and the Jim Crow South lives on.
15. Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, by Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji. Explains, as the title suggests, how our potentially subconscious (racial, ethnic, gender, other) biases can hurt others, especially when such biases are widespread.
Probably the book in this vein that’s most likely to convince people who may not be pre-disposed to agree: to ready the listener for the idea that our active, rationalizing mind may not have full control over our subconscious biases, the authors start by showing various common optical illusions.
The authors then proceed to discuss the Implicit Association Test, ingeniously designed to try to uncover such subconscious biases. The test produces results that disturb many’s self-perceptions of being unbiased, and the authors painstakingly stress that such biases do not mean that someone is a “bad” person. The book grants that people can still be “good,” and have the best of intentions, but still show such biases.
However, it does not let us off the hook for such biases. The authors proceed to demonstrate how our actions, potentially stemming from such biases, hurt others. They emphasize that such actions themselves do not have to harm someone; selective aid of in-group or advantaged people (of which there is much empirical evidence) also harms others in the aggregate.
16. Can it happen here: Authoritarianism in America, collection of essays by edited by Cass Sunstein. [Full review here]
17. Long Story Short, by Margot Leitman. A guide on how to tell better stories from one’s own past, from a master and teacher of short-form story telling. Some of the books I read lead me to a personal call to action (e.g., maybe I should meditate, make my bed every morning, internalize certain negotiation techniques, become a baseball statistician, or start writing creative non-fiction), and I follow through less than I should. This one was unfortunately no exception (I didn’t sign up for a story-telling night or practice on my own). However, it did provide me a quote I have used several times to after convincing someone to join me on what turned out to be less-than-happy adventure: “Everything is either a good time, or a good story.”
A few lessons:
a) Tell the truth where it matters (e.g. don’t make up “1 year later” interactions so your story has closure) but fudge where it doesn’t (e.g. composite characters and filling in (reasonable) details you can’t remember).
b) Don’t rant, and only tell stories for which you have enough emotional distance.
c) The story has to be about you. If someone else’s behavior plays a prominent role, your reactions to the behavior need to be front and center.
18. The Truth Machine: The Blockchain and the Future of Everything, by Michael J. Casey and Paul Vigna. A book describing the high ambitions of a nascent technology. Most of what you have to know about where the authors’ beliefs lie is given by the title and the first chapter, which describes unironically and without incredulity the dream to bring about the “redesign of societal organization.” Some of the book felt like an enumeration of the world’s problems, with “blockchain can fix this” tacked on. Whether blockchain solutions are necessary (as opposed to good, centralized databases) or sufficient (many of the trust, security, and authority related problems discussed apply to blockchain solutions as well, as they relate to how it interfaces with the real world) is up in the air.
However, I hated the book far less than I thought I would, and I left it with an appreciation of the inadequacy of other digital solutions in solving many of the problems enumerated. The authors aren’t the hype machines one would expect based on the title. While they clearly believe in the potential, they provide a honest accounting of the limitations of the current blockchain technologies (e.g. its low transaction throughput, anonymity issues, political and governance problems, and various ‘hacks’/code exploits). I also learned quite a bit about the basic workings of the blockchain. Given the author’s experiences and the book itself, I believe that this is probably the book to read to catch up on what’s going on regarding blockchain.
19. Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. [Full review here]
20. Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande. Argues that for complicated tasks, especially in medicine, one should create checklists to not forget the little things. Also argues for what amounts to a ‘product manager’ — someone responsible for coordination of knowledge and actions, and to road-map a timeline of treatment — in medicine.
Biographies and histories
21. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, by John Carreyrou. [Full review here]
22. Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World, by Sharon Weinberger. [Full review here]
23. Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. [Full review here]
24. Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. A comprehensive biography of the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, and our first president. Unfortunately was only able to read the first 500 pages or so (out of 900) before I had to return it to the library. Some facts that stood out to me: one of Washington’s most defining qualities was undoubtedly his physical stature and strength; a self-taught man, he prioritized controlling his earlier tendency to emotional outbursts; he knew his place in history, calling for Congress to bear the expense of copying all his war-time correspondence during the war itself. I also learned a bit more about the Revolutionary War: the reason that it was one of the few revolutions led by the upper class was that the British failed to co-opt the landed gentry in America; many of the grievances we learn about in history class (e.g. the stamp act) primarily affected the upper class, not regular folks.
25. Einstein, by Walter Isaacson. A biography of Einstein by the same author of the Da Vinci biography I read earlier. Learned quite a bit about him that I didn’t know earlier. For example:
a) Unable to get a professorship, he worked full-time at the Swiss Patent office throughout his “miracle year” of 1905, when he published four papers that each changed physics: on the photo-electric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity, and mass-energy equivalence. More surprisingly, he continued working at the patent office for several more years, until he was more widely recognized for his work.
b) The Nobel was a political mess. By the time Einstein was awarded it, his lack of the prize ‘was more embarrassing to the Nobel committee than him.’ In fact, two years before he got the prize, he had already promised the eventual prize money to his ex-wife and children in his divorce. Isaacson blames both anti-antisemitism and the supposedly heretical nature of special relativity for the delay. He was eventually awarded the 1921 Nobel prize in physics in 1922 (the same time Neils Bohr received the 1922 prize), as the 1921 prize was not awarded at the appropriate time to anyone for some reason. And when he finally got it, he didn’t get it for general relativity, but instead for the photo-electric effect, supposedly for political reasons.
26. The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World, by Simon Winchester. [Full review here]
27. The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight, by Winston Groom. This book tells the stories of three men (only one of whom I’d heard of before) who, between them had the following life stories and accomplishments: first to fly across the Atlantic, first cross-country flight, most decorated WWI fighter pilot and tactician, first flight blind (cockpit covered, using only instruments), WWII fighter pilot, designed and led first bombing run from an aircraft carrier (ie first bombing of Japanese cities during WWII), survivor of a 24 day long ordeal stranded in the ocean on a life-raft without food/drinkable water, decorated racecar driver and owner of Indianapolis 500, tragic father of the victim of the “crime of the century,” inventor of an artificial heart decades ahead of its time, prominent environmentalist and promoter of indigenous cultures, early space program leader, and best-selling author.
It grants that these men weren’t perfect (racist, anti-semitic, supposedly fascist and pro-Nazi for a bit, philanderers) and that they give proof to the adage, “all heroes are horses’ asses.” However, it does not dwell on these subjects and ultimately concludes that their actions warrant calling them heroes.
I like reading such books not only because they tell the stories of those who did great things such as the above but also that they reveal little historical tidbits. For example, did you know that by the 1910s, the top racing cars were reaching almost 100mph? I’d always imagined this feat wasn’t achieved until the 1930–50s.
28. Saudi, Inc.: The Arabian Kingdom’s Pursuit of Profit and Power by Ellen R. Wald. A history of Saudi Arabia told exclusively through the lens of oil and Aramco, now Saudi Aramco.
29. Energy, a human history, by Richard Rhodes. [Full review here]
30. China’s Great Wall of Debt: Shadow Banks, Ghost Cities, Massive Loans, and the End of the Chinese Miracle, by Dinny McMahon. [Full review here]