Books I read in 2018, ranked (31–52)

This is Part 3 (ranks 31–52) of my ranking of books read in 2018. See also Part 1 (ranks 1–10) and Part 2 (ranks 11–30).

Welcome to the final part of my rankings of books read this year. As in Part 2, they’re roughly organized by topic, though the overall ranking remains roughly accurate. It’s important to note that I would likely choose to read most of the books even in this part of the ranking (I’d stop somewhere around the mid- 40s) — because my reading list is curated from friends and online lists, I happen to read many good books, and some have to be ranked lower than others.

You may also notice that several political books are at the bottom; their position reflects more my state of mind this year (tired of rehashes of recent political battles and gossip) than the books themselves. I’m sure if I reread these books after a few years, I would enjoy them and find them useful.


Science, Science Fiction, and Educational

31. Dark Forest, by Liu Cixin. English translation of book two of the 3 Body Problem trilogy. Much better than the first one. There were several interesting and new science (fiction) ideas, and they were executed well and in a self-consistent manner. The main character is creepy at the beginning for no apparent reason, but that plot line is forgotten eventually.

32. Theory and Reality: An introduction to the philosophy of science, by Peter Godfrey-Smith. Exactly what the sub-title suggests: a solid introduction to the philosophy of science, written by a professor and researcher in the history and philosophy of science. From the publisher’s page: “Theory and Reality covers logical positivism; the problems of induction and confirmation; Karl Popper’s theory of science; Thomas Kuhn and ‘scientific revolutions’; the views of Imre Lakatos, Larry Laudan, and Paul Feyerabend; and challenges to the field from sociology of science, feminism, and science studies. The book then looks in more detail at some specific problems and theories, including scientific realism, the theory-ladeness of observation, scientific explanation, and Bayesianism. Finally, Godfrey-Smith defends a form of philosophical naturalism as the best way to solve the main problems in the field.” For the table of contents, see here.

33. Law 101: Everything You Need to Know About American Law, by Jay M. Feinman. Claims to give an overview of the first year of law school in ~350 pages (what a deal if true!). Has chapters on constitutional law, torts, contract, property, and criminal law and procedure.

34. Ethics in the real world : 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter, by Peter Singer. From the book’s description: “Peter Singer is often described as the world’s most influential philosopher. He is also one of its most controversial. ... In this book of brief essays, he applies his controversial ways of thinking to issues like climate change, extreme poverty, animals, abortion, euthanasia, human genetic selection, sports doping, the sale of kidneys, the ethics of high-priced art, and ways of increasing happiness.”

I found the articles a bit too short to really engage with the material, but his views are certainly thought-provoking.

35. Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong, by Paul A. Offit. As the title suggests, gives the stories of scientific ideas and people that did more harm than good, or at the least caused harm alongside the good they did. These include, among others: lobotomies to “cure” a whole host of alleged maladies, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (yes, as a cause of harm!), the banning of saturated fat, and the American eugenics movement. A bunch of interesting tidbits here:

a) The author claims that Rachel Carson, of Silent Spring fame, who led to both the banning of DDT as a pesticide in the US and the creation of the EPA, inadvertently caused countless deaths due to malaria. The internet is somewhat mixed regarding the true story here (e.g. see here and here).

b) Regarding saturated fat: the author argues that the emphasis on saturated fat led to dietary decisions, e.g. replacing butter with margarine, that dramatically increased the amount of trans fats Americans consume, with trans fats being far worse health-wise.

c) Fritz Haber discovered how to make synthetic fertilizer (through the catalysis of ammonia), which has enabled the lives of billions of people more than earth’s natural agricultural capacity could support. However, he was also the “father of chemical warfare,” and in 1915 during WWI personally oversaw the German use of chlorine gas leading to thousands of casualties. After war crime charges were dropped against him, he received a controversial Nobel prize in 1918.

The book goes on to discuss several other phenomena, from the use of opium as a medical pain reliever to the tendencies of scientific Nobel Prize winners to become crackpots in their later years (including Linus Pauling, the only person to receive two solo prizes).


Self-help and success

36. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, by Jonathan Haidt. An overview of research on happiness, from Plato to modern times. The Wikipedia page is a surprisingly good summary of the book. Haidt is considered the pre-eminent Academic social psychologist of our times, so a book well-worth considering.

37. Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy” by Robert Frank. [Full review here]

38. Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment, by Robert Wright. [Full review here]

39. Principles, by Ray Dalio. An enumeration and discussion of the personal and business principles by which Ray Dalio — founder of Bridgewater Associates — lives his life. I admire the thought and self-reflection that goes into writing something like this. The core message seems to be — to build a true meritocracy and meaningful relationships, one needs “radical transparency.”

40. On writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King. I haven’t read any Stephen King novels, but when someone with over 58 books (selling over 350 million copies) tells you how to write, one has to listen.

41. Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, by Peter Thiel. A short list of musings by Thiel on the mindset that it takes to create something new, impactful, and long-lasting. Many of his points are familiar to those that already breath Bay Area air; however, he presents several concise questions one should ask oneself before starting something new, and I found those valuable, not in their novelty but in that he has them in convenient list form. For example: ‘what truth do most people disagree with’ (or the business version: ‘what is your startup’s secret’), and ‘what is your 10x improvement’ (because anything less will be seen as derivative and won’t overcome others’ incumbency advantages).


A few others

42. Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman. I came into this book knowing nothing about Norse Mythology that Marvel didn’t teach me. The book is a light-hearted retelling of old Norse myths, one that focuses on the Gods’ personalities more than any particular story. The author doesn’t seem to have any agenda, except making the Gods look like petulant frat boys who cheat and kill others for their own amusement (and especially for alcohol); and we’re supposed to root for them, or at least delight in their antics. Well written and entertaining.

43. Astroball: The New Way to Win It All by Ben Reiter. [Full review here]

44. The Three Body Problem, by Liu Cixin. The English translation of a Chinese science fiction novel. The less I say about the plot the better, as how the book unfolds is somewhat unexpected, especially as at the beginning it seems to be about the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The world building is acceptable, the science is meh, and the character development is non-existent. I didn’t fall in love with it, but I’ll probably read the remaining books in the series. Update: I read the second book, but on the advice of a friend who also read the third (and who agreed with me regarding the first two), I didn’t read that one.

45. Less, by Andrew Sean Greer. A fun little novel, though not my preferred type of book. Had to read it for a book club.

46. 48 laws of power, by Robert Greene. Somewhat fun, modern-day compendium of lessons from (and extension of) The Art of War, The Prince, and similar treatises from various cultures. As the title promises, the book lists 48 laws of power, following each one with a summary and then historical anecdotes that either followed or broke the law. Most of the historical anecdotes come from warfare or the European royal courts, though the art collector Joseph Duveen also plays a prominent role.

The laws itself are cynical, and I don’t think they’re true. For example: #3) conceal your intentions, #6) court attention at all costs, #16)Use absence to increase respect and honor, #27) Play on people’s need to create a cult-like following, and #38) Think as you like but behave like others. For a full listing, see here.

47. The Art of War, by Sun Tzu. Ancient Chinese military treatise. I found it meh. At some point this book might have been a practical guide for warfare. But, today, it reads like a giant, repetitive list of metaphors that seem fairly obvious. There are probably 100 different ways it says, “Do the opposite of what your enemy expects you to do,” and 200 ways it says, “Victory is determined before the battle starts,” and 300 ways for “find and press your advantage if you can, but excess is bad” (which of course it is, by definition of “excess” and “bad”). Some of these metaphors and stories are entertaining and I might try to work them in daily conversation. In general, I don’t understand those who suggest that the book has insightful, unique things to say about modern problems.

48. When: The Scientific secrets of perfect timing, by Dan Pink. The pop-iest of pop-psych books I’ve read in a while. It’s incredibly short, but I still stopped reading about 80% of way through. The book contained a few too many references to non-replicated research and misinterpretations of good research.

49. Mastery, by Robert Greene. Written by the same author as “48 Laws of Power” (something I wish I realized before beginning), this book claims to tell you the secrets becoming a world expert in your field. It read, though, as if after the first “trick” — train many years as an apprentice under a world expert (huh, I wish someone told me to do that earlier)— the author relapses to re-writing his previous book. The rest of the advice includes how to find the right time to back-stab your teacher and to evade criticism (don’t be a jerk in public)!


The political books I was too tired to appreciate

50. What Happened, by Hillary Rodham Clinton. I made it about 70% through before election fatigue hit again, and I stopped reading at that point. I do think Clinton documenting her view of the election is important and valuable, but I just couldn’t drag myself to finish it. It’s (mostly) well written, but I’m not sure this book (or any that she can write at this stage) would convince anyone (who has followed US politics the last few years) of anything they don’t already believe. Whether that reads as an indictment of me, her, the book, or politics in general probably also depends on what you already believe.

51. Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Created a Legacy That Will Prevail, Jonathan Chait. A book that does not live up to its title, but that’s probably my fault for expecting/wanting a different sort of book.

What I imagined going in, solely from the title: an in-depth walk-through of little-known but significant achievements (what they do, and why they matter) by the Obama administration, either through regulatory action or things tucked away in bills. This version of the book would proceed area by area, listing and discussing in depth the many (both small and large) things the administration did that changed the status quo and how the trends will be hard to reverse. It probably would still be written from Chait’s perspective of an avid supporter, and it would have taught me quite a bit.

What the book delivers: a recapitulation of the largest political battles and/or well known accomplishments and failures (Affordable Care Act, cap and trade, the stimulus, Clean Air act extension, Race to the Top, Iran deal, Paris Climate agreement, budget fights, Iraq pullout); where the administration succeeded, it simply states (rather than justifies) that they were big deals; where it failed, it argues that the blame should be shared by Congress or the Bush administration. It focuses on political battles and perceptions rather than the substance of the issues, and I felt like the choir being preached to. In the alternate universe where the 2016 election went the way Chait and everyone else thought it would when he was writing the book, I could imagine somewhat enjoying the book as a reminder of the major things that happened. In our real world, however, it doesn’t live up to what the moment seems to demand.

52. Fire and Fury, by Michael Wolff. Can’t really say I read it — I stopped about 30% of the way through. I learned that I no longer have any tolerance for or draw enjoyment from the gossip-y aspects of politics, even though such books used to be a guilty pleasure.