2015 Books

A tweet by the inimitable Jed Schmidt lead me to Christina Cacioppo’s wonderful wrap up of her 2015 reading list. I thought the format was brilliant, so I’m borrowing it. So, in no particular order, here’s what I read in 2015. Strong recommendations in bold.

After seeing a documentary about Gore Vidal, I picked up a few of his novels at Dog Eared Books in the Mission. Creation had an interesting jacket, so that’s the one I started with. Much of what we consider “western” thinking can trace it’s origins back to when the Middle East was the center of the universe, during the Persian empire in the 6th and 5th century b.c.e. The story drags a bit in places, but provides a nice little comparative religion walking tour of the greatest minds of the Axial Age: Zoroaster, Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tsu, and Socrates.

Fun little “weird fiction” novella my partner gave me. Moody and trippy, with all the trappings of good dystopian fantasy / sci-fi. First part of a trilogy, maybe I’ll get around to the other two this year.

  • IQ84 by Haruki Murakami

I’m a few years behind the curve on this one, but holy shit was this a wonderful slog. Perfectly structured, with short chapters oscillating between narrators in a way that balances suspense and suspension of disbelief on a knife edge. Weird, long, challenging, and memorable. I look forward to returning to this book in the future.

Another fun little novella Amy put on my desk sometime this year. A delicious apéritif compared to the wheelbarrow-sized seven course tasting menu of IQ84.

Whoever you are, whatever you’re doing, read this if you haven’t already. If it bothers you, read it again and learn some empathy.

Definitely a younger sibling of Between the World and Me, this is a great study of someone writing his way out of his youth, picking up some perspective and understanding along the way, and a story of a the troubling and difficult reality of being black in america.

That thing where you ignore an author’s most popular work because you’re afraid it won’t live up to their other work you love? That’s why I had never read this before. Very buttoned-down for a P. K. Dick, but enjoyable never-the-less with an especially relevant setting as a recent transplant to San Francisco.

I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to best navigate systems that are made entirely out of people and rules, so this book was a real eye-opener. Once you can suss out the motivations of behind the eyes of even the most insipid bureaucrats, you gain a startling empathy and a sense of appreciation for — and even enjoyment of — the paradoxical funhouse that is our modern idiocracy.

  • Debt by David Graeber

The least boring book on the history financial systems you’ll likely ever pick up. Graeber is a great conversationalist and storyteller; lots of interesting history and anecdotes fall out of this one.

The 33 1/3 series (which deconstructs classic albums into short, commute-length essays and novellas) has been on my radar for nearly a decade, and this book in particular combines two things that hipster-dom demands I love: Colin Meloy of The Decemberists and The Replacements 1984 album Let It Be. Meloy spins a good yarn about growing up a bit of a hesher and loving this sloppy concoction of an album.

Man, 2015 was the year that I really got into Donuts. I remember casually listening to it when it was new but it never stuck with me then. Honestly I remember wondering what the hype was about. Turns out I wasn’t listening close enough or I wasn’t otherwise ready to hear what was in there. Now I’m a fully converted Dilla-head, already on my way to amassing a little Eddie Kendricks collection of my own. If Dilla is God and Donuts was Jesus, than this book is the Gospels.

Penguin’s Great Ideas series marries beautiful covers and commute-length selections that can fill the gaps in an incomplete education. I hadn’t covered the material in this one since high school, so the worker’s of the world caught my attention for a morning or two on the ferry.

Again, one from the Great Ideas series. Again, some material that I hadn’t given a passing thought to since AP History. Foundational documents for revolutions apparently make for good commute reading.

2015 was my year for “taking design seriously.” Which meant, more or less, covering bases that I had previously skipped. This is a bible of sorts for the Bauhaus set, and it’s wonderfully intimidating. I will have this within arms reach of my desk at home for the foreseeable future.

It’s good to know that academia is a bit of a hot mess, even for the Serious Artists™. I get a decent enough second-hand whiff of university politics from my partner to know that it’s an extremely problematic by-product of the education system. This collections of essays discusses the professionalization of careers in design, and hits on many a salient point, but ultimately suffers, like most anthologies do, of lacking a clear hypothesis.

Another great find at Dog Eared Books. A good companion to Grid Systems, this gives you a by-the-numbers approach to understanding how communication through typography works. Essential reading if you design things on the internet.

Noticing a theme yet? Covers the same ground as Dair, but a bit more contemporary. Beautifully laid out and printed, it’s much more approachable than the schwarzweiß, text heavy Dair. Very flippable—open anywhere, flip a few pages, you’ll see something interesting.

A self-help book with a chapter titled “Fuck self-improvement.” Sign me up. With formulaic chapters based on anecdotes, situations, responses and solutions, this is a little charmer that’s not afraid to throw around some 4-letter pejoratives. Very helpful advice about recognizing and accepting emotions without letting them rule / ruin you.

Bill Bryson has a knack for catching my attention with admittedly boring subject matter. While much less ambitious than A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bryson weaves an interesting anthropological yarn about why we live like the way we live. I found a wonderful full-color hardcover steeply discounted at the bookstore, very happy with the purchase.

I probably started reading this in 2011 or 2012, made a dent but never finished it off. So this year, I started over and was surprised at how pleasant it was. I’m fascinated by science but never had the academic patience to pursue it seriously, so I love it when an eloquent genius can sum up the complexities of our universe for me to cherry pick from the sidelines.

Yes, I fell for the hype of this book. No, it was not life-changing. It reads like a business book: a central idea that pretty good but more or less obvious is presented ad nauseam, often in a preachy tone. Now don’t get me wrong, I did find this at least a little bit inspiring, but the material is better off as a TED talk or a blog post—neither of which fare very well when spread out into a book-length monologue.

Audiobooks (those totally count as books, right?)

I read this when it first came out and was very pleased with the repeat listen. I’m a big fan of David Byrne’s work, and this is no exception. It suffers from a bit of repetition, like it was composed of separate essays that hit the same themes and cite the same facts, but don’t quite snap into focus like you expect them to. Still a great listen.

Oh Evans, you dog. I was too young to have heard of this when it came out, and when I was in film school I heard it refereed to a few times but it was never assigned reading and I never sought it out. This is an amazing monument to Robert Evans, by Robert Evans. Michelangelo’s David as a self portrait. This guy is a complete lunatic and obvious asshole, but he tells a great story and made a couple great movies.

Michio Kaku is probably the guy you meet at parties that never leaves any gaps in a conversation, careening from topic to topic as long as nobody’s interjecting—which they don’t, because any self-respecting party guest has already started back to the hors d’oeuvres. It’s not that what he’s saying isn’t fascinating, it’s that he never shuts up or makes his point. That’s probably a bit hard on our third-favorite discovery channel professor, but I found this one hard to engage with as an audiobook, despite being interesting material.

  • Dune by Frank Herbert

“He who can destroy a think, can control a thing.” Dune gets better every time I read it.

Wow is this shit long. Like 30+ hours of listening. Even at unlistenable 2x that’s longer than a flight to China. I’m sure this is great, genre-defining dungeons and dragons fantasy, but definitely suffers as an audiobook because of it’s massive time commitment.

I listen to the first two parts of the trilogy in 2014, and the conclusion this year. The more plodding parts make me miss when the movies were new, or when I was 14 discovering middle earth for the first time.

Once again Bill Bryson manages to make the mundane entirely interesting.

If you ever wanted that section of Waking Life about Sartre to be 10 hours long, than this if for you, because it’s the same professor featured in the film. Luckily, I happen to be that guy, so I ate up every minute of this, and even squeezed in a second listen before the end of the year.

Capping off the list with another comparative religions walking tour. Where Gore Vidal used Creation to romanticize the birth of western thought and it’s true origins in the east, Professor Hardy presents a dense, intricate series of lectures covering much of the same ground albeit to a more academic audience. This one has gotten a second listen too, but mostly due to how befuddling legalism can be.