2014 books

December 29, 2014

Second in a series, here’s my 2014 booklist. Following @aaronsw’s convention, I particularly recommend books in bold.

Overall: I’m a bit ashamed; 2014 was my weakest reading year since a particularly bad year of college. I can invent exculpations, primary of which is Pocket – though I read more there than ever before, books are on the decline – this wasn’t the reading year I’d hoped. (As salve, here’s a few article recommendations),

You can absolutely see the arcs of the two areas on which I spent the most time – banking and programming environments – in what I read.

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
    This book’s phrasing is lovely (“I’m also going back to Nigeria to see my man,” Ifemelu said, surprising herself. My man. How easy it was to lie to strangers, to create with strangers the versions of our lives that we have imagined.) but I never got into the character or the story.

  • Restful Web Services by Leonard Richardson
    Read after I’d spent a few days making an API for Laisin, so decently helpful and useful — but if you’re not already very interested in this sort of thing, this isn’t for you.

  • Principles by Ray Dalio
    Makes the simple point that anyone’s unlikely to be productive without being definite about a direction. I rather liked it, despite having found myself allergic to these sort of advi-memoirs in the past.

  • Getting Unstuck by Timothy Butler
    Basically what you imagine from the cover. Some of the exercises are decent if you’re in that sort of mood.

  • Jony Ive: the Genius behind Apple’s Greatest Products by Leander Kahney
    Eh. The Vogue profile provided more bang-for-word than this book.

  • Softwar: An Intimate Portrait of Larry Ellison and Oracle by Matthew Symonds
    Semi-autobiography né biography, tis a journalist’s account of Ellison’s life with Ellison’s footnotes throughout. The best ones were the sharpest, which confirmed what I’d already thought of Ellison. Many tl;dr into “no, I didn’t yell at him because I was jealous of him; I yelled at him because he was an incompetent fool.” A book that didn’t change my opinions.

  • Barron’s AP Computer Science by Roselyn Teukolsky
    Another reminder that life’s better outside of high school. Read with purpose though!

  • Payment Systems in the US by Carol Coye Benson, Scott Loftesness
    The book on the topic apparently. About as interesting as it sounds it’d be (unless you really really want to know about payment systems in the US.)

  • The Complete HyperCard Handbook by Danny Goodman
    It seemed remiss, given HyperCard’s cult status, that I’d never used the program. (HyperStudio, my third-grade love, seems decidedly Not The Same.) This guidebook was a three-in-one: software use guide, programming primer, and programming language design treatise.

  • Squeak by Example by Andrew P. Black, Stéphane Ducasse, Oscar Nierstrasz, Damien Pollet
    Another environment, another way of doing things. This one much loved by people whose opinions I very much respect.

  • Digital Bank by Chris Skinner
    I’m all for Kindle Singles in practice (even on the tweet record!) by this one felt a hoodwink; the chapters were disjoint blog posts that called to mind the “If I had more time, I would’ve written you a shorter letter” truism.

  • Winning the Story Wars by Jonah Sachs
    One of those business books that says all the things you think it would. Also seemed to spend too much time justifying storytelling with anecdata; only those who already appreciate storytelling will pick this up!

  • Damn Good Advice by George Lois
    Pretty good advice, damn good advertisements. Embarrassingly, I didn’t know George Lois before being handed this book.

  • A Game of Thrones: A Song of Fire and Ice by George R. R. Martin
    Ahhhh, so this is what you’re all going on about. Actually quite fun and much better paced than I’d expected; you can tell Martin used to write television sitcoms. I haven’t read the sequels only because I feel I should be reading better things. (Dicey logic, I know .. )

  • The Principles of Banking by Moorad Choudhry
    This is a textbook. Not a new-age digital textbook. A textbook.

  • Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
    Really, really wonderful writing. It didn’t take me more than 20 pages to realize that despite my reading more than ever before (mostly on the internet), I’m missing out on the lilt of literary fiction.

  • iOS Human Interface Guidelines by Apple
    Quite a good version of what it is, which is highly suggested, probably-shouldn’t-be-optional rules. Building products necessitates reading these at some point, I think.

  • Zero to One by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters
    It feels a bit cliche – certainly not contrarian – to recommend this book, but (in its near terms) I’d rather be cliche and right than contrarian and wrong. The most impressive part of this book, to me, is how succinctly the ideas are expressed. I can only imagine how many drafts were wrought and discarded.

  • Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos
    I’ve enjoyed Osnos’ writing in the New Yorker for a few years now, so this book wasn’t exactly new – but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. I especially like it as a complement to Peter Hessler’s stuff; to generalize too broadly, Hessler profiles China’s everyman, and Osnos its shiny movers-and-shakers.

  • Superdistribution by Brad Cox
    Another entry for the “quite nearly, but not completely, predicted the future before it happened” category. Today, Cox’s predictions seem firmly 20 degrees off center, but I suspect they’ll look better if we start thinking of software engineering’s output as data, not code, and “prebuilt components” as APIs rather than salable blocks of code.

  • Concilience by EO Wilson
    Perhaps I know too little about too much to have enjoyed this book adequately; I found myself swapping the book for Google searches so often I lost track of what I read.

  • Think and Grow Rich by Napoloeon Hill
    A guide to getting rich, from the 1930s, which I discovered through George Packer’s The Unwinding. I found it better as an anthropology of robber-baron America than a financial management guide. The book’s suffused with the confident stain of “work hard enough and the riches will yours.”

  • Among Schoolchildren by Tracy Kidder
    Solid long-form journalism without the sex or drugs with which the genre’s usually associated; elementary-school kids in working class Massachusetts sub in for the Merry Pranksters, and Kidder’s not part of the plot. It’s also empathetic; after reading it, I better understood why teaching is so hard, and why online instruction has been so noncomprehensive.

  • Flatland by Edwin Abbot
    A book I should’ve read a decade ago, when one of my favorite high school teachers recommended it. Quite fun.

  • Coming Apart by Charles Murray
    I did well to take this book, like Murray’s others, at arm’s length; his descriptive statistics are solid, but they’re not necessarily complete, and his extrapolations are just that. Perhaps worth reading if you’re puzzling through “what sort of inequality matters?” questions after Piketty.

  • The Swift Programming Language by Apple
    A pretty good version of what it is.

  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
    Cute, fun, and sorta interesting, though I wish it’d spent less time on the video games and more time on the world – where it came from, what it’s like, and how we might get out. But this is my perpetual wish of dystopian fiction, and you might like this one just enough for what it is.

  • Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty
    Much has been said already, so only two things more: it’s actually very readable — the sort of clear writing that comes from near-infinite revisions — and its research is quite good. If Piketty wins a Nobel, it’ll be for making cleometrics (economic history) a “real” field within economics; he and Esther Duflo are on my shortlist!

  • Reporting by David Remnick
    Remnick’s writing’s so good, and his subjects so interesting, it’s hard to do much beside praise this collection. Though – if pressed – I feel a bit guilty; these sorts of pieces can seem highbrow gossip rags. Is reading about Benjamin Netanyahu’s daily habits thaaaaaat different than reading about Taylor Swift’s?

  • Men, Machines, and Modern Times by Elting E. Morison
    Stories of technological diffusion within large organizations — the navy, steel factories, and dairy processors. Still feels more recorded lectures than a proper book but very much recommended if you’re into the topic.

  • Putin’s Kleptocracy by Karen Dawisha
    Great if you want 500 pages on Russia’s last two decades. Dawisha’s an academic, but the subject matter’s very James Bond (if the bad guys had won) and the writing is somewhere between dry and James Patterson (call it “damp?”) If all that sounds only vaguely compelling, read the book’s New York Review of Books review and the trashy articles about the oligarchs in the Daily Mail instead.

  • Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson
    Pretty good, by most definitions, but for anyone who’s familiar with IAS’ early years, this can’t help but feel a little tired. (Though, to be fair, it’s an infinitely more readable account of IAS than everything else out there.) If you haven’t read any Dyson, start with Darwin Among the Machines.

  • The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte by Robert Asprey
    The sort of history book I like: a decently linear story, based on primary sources that I don’t need to tease through myself, told in a novel-ish way. I’ve got the sequel (“The Reign of .. ”) but haven’t cracked it yet.

  • Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich
    One of those books that quote-unquote predicted parts of the internet much before they happened: “The operation of a peer-matching network would be simple. The user would identify himself by name and address and describe the activity for which he sought a peer. A computer would send him back the names and addresses of all those who had inserted the same description .. ” Probably worth reading.

  • America’s Most Successful Startups by Oliver Samwer
    A master’s thesis about what startups got right, and wrong, in the late 90s. Mostly interesting for what the author did later.

  • Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx
    Desperately sad, beautiful writing about the pearly bits of hard-shelled people. Her Paris Review interview is also deadly.

  • Business Adventures by John Brooks
    I read these chapters on and off through the fall. My favorites were the Edsel and Xerox tales, though I’d recommend them all as a more-lighthearted storytime.

  • The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St Aubyn
    Super well written, super depressing – calling these characters “nasty, brutish, and short” would be too kind. It’s kinda Bret Easton Ellis meets Edith Wharton.

  • The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer
    This one’s a bit of a cheat; I’m only midway through the third book as the year’s ending, which is less than 40% of the entire oeuvre. But given that’d be at least a book on its own in most other contexts, I’m including it now. I’ve learned a ton, and despite the logical reasons to abandon the book, I doubt I will.

I track books I’ve read in a spreadsheet throughout the year. If you know of a book I should read, do let me know!