2013 books

December 31, 2013

Inspired by friends’ year-end booklists, I put together my own for 2013. Following @aaronsw’s convention, I particularly recommend books with bold titles.

  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
    Fantastically good and recommended, even if you don’t think of yourself as someone who reads “books like this.” Boo’s a lovely writer and keen observer – in this case, of slum life in Mumbai, though her New Yorker essays (e.g. on lower-class Oklahoma City) are also worth hunting down.
  • One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina
    If you’ve got a tie to East Africa, you’ll probably like this book; if not, you can skip it. The writing kinda has an MFA-program tone I don’t love.
  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
    I really, really wanted to love this: two times Booker winner, Tudor drama! (a favorite of 12 year-old me), and an author for whom it’s easy to root. I just ... didn’t.
  • Maximum City by Suketu Mehta
    I’d heard great things, but I found it plodding and full of solipsism. Perhaps you’ll like it more?
  • River Town by Peter Hessler
    One of my favorite books of the year. This is the two-years-in-the-peace-corps bildungsroman that everyone tries to write and no one pulls off. Hessler’s versions is empathetic toward the people around him and toward his foibles and triumphs. I came away liking him a good deal, which I think of as high praise for an autobiography.
  • Divergent by Veronica Roth
    Sugar-sweet dystopian fiction centered on an imperfect, teenage heroine. Better than the Hunger Games though it’s no Giver or Brave New World. More than the book, check out the author’s blog – she’s super likable!
  • Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman
    A short book about making movies in Hollywood. It feels out of date and thin, though I’d be very interested in an updated version.
  • One Room Schoolhouse by Salman Khan
    Succinct retelling of Khan’s ideas, though you’re probably better off watching his TED talk and other public speeches.
  • Mindstorms by Seymour Papert
    How children could learn better with computers, first published in 1980, and mostly relevant today. That it’s still relevant is either a testiment to the book’s timelessness or the sludge we’ve called education innovation – I’ll leave that determination to you – but it’s worth reading if you’re interested in these sort of things.
  • Human Capitalism by Brink Lindsey
    A Kindle Single that argues for follow-on effects to both the accumulation of and a lack of human capital. I’m sympathetic to the argument, so I both liked the book and found the policy proposals reasonable, though I’d be curious how someone else less sympathetic to the broader points finds it.
  • How Children Fail by John Holt
    Apparently a decently-well-regarded critique of hierarchical education systems like the US’s, but I thought most of the arguments were tilting at strawmen.
  • Shopcraft as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford
    I think this book’s over-arching themes are good ones – that seeing the immediate effects of your work can be valuable, that returns to “making something” can be greater than those to “thinking about something”, that American education tends to skew towards “thinking things”, etc. – but the narrative felt heavy handed.
  • Hard Landings by Thomas Petzinger, Jr.
    A history of the US airline industry. The portrayal of airlines in 1970s reminded me of tech today: it was the high-flying (ooooooof) industry that attracted all the bright young things – until realism and regulation dashed it all.
  • Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
    Worth reading, even if you think you know what it says. (It won’t take you more than 90 minutes!) The biggest take-away, for me, is how thorny gender in the workplace is and how good intentions are painfully insufficient.
  • Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows
    A short book on the Chinese language and one linguist’s efforts to learn it. This book doesn’t try to be anything but fun facts and small anecdotes, which is probably why I enjoyed it so much.
  • Postcards from Tomorrow Square by James Fallows
    Ten essays that together are supposed to let us in on the secrets of Modern China. The essays are well-written and interesting, but they’re a better mirror to Fallows than they are to China.
  • The Children’s Machine by Seymour Papert
    An update to Mindstorms, sortof, which you should probably read instead.
  • Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler
    Not Hessler’s best, but his not-best is better than most everyone else’s best. Alternate title: “dispatches from a young journalist in China in the early-to-mid 2000s.”
  • The Bo Xilai Scandal by the Financial Times staff
    A collection of the FT’s reporting on Bo Xilai’s downfall, up to his wife’s trial. It’s well reported, full of detail, and a decent counterpoint to more pro-China sources.
  • The Fat Years by Koonchung Chan
    The novel opens with all of China waking up, ostensibly after a night’s sleep, to a month that’s gone missing from public record and private consciousness. There’s an inkling something terrible happened during the forgotten month, but most are too happy to question it. The premise, though far-fetched, made it easier for me to empathize with life in today’s China. This book was banned – and so is very popular – in mainland China.
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
    Closer to the mind of a psychopath than I hope I’ll be for a long while. Compelling, suspenseful, etc etc, but not a book that stuck with me.
  • Vanity Fair’s How a Book is Born by Keith Gesson
    A great introduction to the modern book business and how hard it is for writers. Gessen’s friend, Chad Harbach, is the article’s half-protagonist, which makes the story that much more humane. Very much made me want to stay out of publishing.
  • A Life Decoded by J. Craig Venter
    Venter’s done more than most people – first to decode the genome, first to create what he’s calling synthetic life, etc – and he’s well aware of it. As much as I admire those things, I didn’t like him very much by the end.
  • A History of Future Cities by Daniel Brook
    A conceptual history of Mumbai, St. Petersburg, Shanghai, and Dubai. The book holds together better than I thought it would, though I found its best bit the historical perspective; reading it, you realize the descriptions of St. Petersburg from the eighteenth century aren’t all that different from contemporary descriptions of Dubai.
  • Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World by Allison Graham, Robert D. Blankwill, Ali Wyne
    A collection of interview and public-speaking excerpts from Lee Kuan Yew. Worth it if most of your China news comes from American or European sources (as mine does), though you’ll have to skip the first fifth of the book – it’s all blurbs from world leaders praising Yew. (Including all of them is an odd decision; he so obviously earned the praise that the lot of them comes with a feeling of “why protest so much?”)
  • Hidden in Plain Sight by Jan Chipchase and Simon Steinhardt
    I think this book was meant to sell more consulting work, which is really too bad, because Chipchase’s blog used to be great and inspired much of my early design work.
  • Tibet, Tibet by Patrick French
    It’s hard to tell how partisan Patrick French is to the Tibetan government in exile, but his allegiance certainly isn’t to the Chinese government. He offers a decent mouthpiece for the Western, free-Tibet lobby though I’d recommend reading Peter Hessler’s 1999 essay on Tibet instead.
  • Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russel
    I loved Swamplandia!, Karen Russel’s first novel. This short story collection is good but not what I’d hoped, though in her defense, that still means it’s better than most other short story collections.
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
    Fun fluff. I found the “Harry Potter for adults” catchphrase mostly accurate.
  • Strange Stones by Peter Hessler
    By the time this came out, I already knew I’d read anything Peter Hessler wrote; this essay collection proved I’d re-buy and re-read stuff I’d already read for free.
  • Free to Choose by Milton Friedman and Rose Friedman
    Libertarianism from the source. The Friedmans make compelling and succinct arguments. Worth reading because they argued their points better than anyone has since.
  • The Age of Edison by Ernest Freeburg
    A really great history of technological diffusion – in this case, of electricity in the United States. Touches on reasons electrification proceeded faster in the US than Europe (more state sponsorship and more tolerance for accidental electrocution) and electricity as a social phenomenon (electric companies petitioning for electronics education in primary schools – not because everyone will be an electrician but because everyone will need to understand electricity in the modern world. (Sound familiar?))
  • Kern and Burn by Tim Hoover and Jessica Karle Heltzel
    Interviews with interaction designers and web entrepreneurs, talking about how hard it is to make things and how they do it anyway. Provided a peek into creative processes, which I wish I got more often.
  • It Will Be Exhilarating by Dan Provost and Tim Gerhardt
    The Kickstarter-campaign book, written by two of Kickstarter’s early superstars. (Provost and Gerhardt kickstarted both the Gliph and the Cosmonaut.) Short and does what it says it does.
  • Everyday Technology by David Arnold
    More academic than I’d hoped, but if you’re into stories of technological diffusion, this might be a book for you. Covers the bicycle, sewing machine, typewriter, and rice mill in India.
  • Computers and Society by Richard Hamming
    Published in 1972, Hamming talks through the impact he thinks computers will have on society. In retrospect, he was both directionally correct and too soon; many of his predictions felt fresh in 2013.Example:

    “There is little doubt that the process of consolidating our information files is now going on at a rapid pace. Not only are large corporations doing it internally, but as mentioned before, various governmental agencies are gradually doing the same. What it is necessary to find out is how far people who understand the two sides of the argument are willing to go, and where, and tow hat forms are they prepared to say: ‘stop, this is going too far. We prefer the inefficiencies and their attendant cost to the other less tangible losses that will happen.’”
  • The Art of Doing Science and Engineering by Richard Hamming
    Part electronics explanation (not for me, perhaps for you) and part how-do-you-do-interesting-things? advice (very very good.) If you’re into this sort of thing, check out Hamming’s “You and Your Research” in text and video.
  • The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
    Ostensibly a book about baseball but really a book about perfecting a craft. (In an interview, Harbach said he wanted to write about writers but recognized most people find them too boring.) I don’t like baseball very much, but I really, really liked this book. Unfortunately the ending’s a little wonky, though it’s pulled off better than others of its sort.
  • And Suddenly the Inventor Appeared by Genrich Altshuller
    Invention hacks from a Soviet dissident. Probably more striking when it was published, as it seems most of these principles have filtered into hashtag-entrepreneurship pop culture.
  • Les Cendres d’Oublie by Carina Rozenfeld
    Decently sure this series is the French version of Twilight. Probably written for 12 year-olds, which is about the level at which I read and comprehend French. (Basically: all win!)
  • After the War by Christopher J Coyne
    Reminded me why I wasn’t a political science major.
  • The Old Way by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
    Aaaalright. In her late 40s, Thomas returns to the remote piece of the Kalahari Desert where she spent her teens with her anthropologist parents. The book’s mostly a lament of the Bush culture that villagization, alcohol, and “Western ways” destroyed; though her descriptions of the Old Way that had been practiced are lovely, I wish she’d turned that empathy on more modern practices too.
  • Average is Over by Tyler Cowen
    I’m an unyielding Tyler Cowen/Marginal Revolution fan, and I’m sympathetic to the symptoms the book describes, but I think Cowen’s solutions are a bit off – though he did suggest reasonable policies, rather than pie-in-the-sky dreams. (Though: as we welcome our robot overlords, why don’t we prepare more people to work with robots? Also why are the robots coming on now, rather than five years ago or five years hence?)
  • Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire by James Wallace and Jim Erickson
    Filled in gaps I had on the first ~two decades of Microsoft. I came away with the impression that Gates and co. were both very very good and had little idea things were working as well as they were.
  • Just Kids by Patti Smith
    I liked the portrait of Smith and Mappelthorpe, but I loved the rendering of 1970s New York.
  • Onward by Howard Schultz
    Business platitudes. Shoulda guessed from the title.
  • The Everything Store by Brad Stone
    The best of the three entrepreneur-in-Seattle books I read this fall. The parts about Bezos’ father felt unnecessary and intrusive, and the parts about early Amazon and the web’s Wild West were my favorite.
  • Wheelmen by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell
    Eh. I knew most of this book’s material, either from other books or news reports, but it’s a decent introduction to professional cycling and its Lance Armstrong fiasco if that’s the sort of thing in which you’re interested.
  • Beta China by Hamish McKenzie
    Solid reporting, though I’d hoped for more analysis.
  • In An Uncertain World by Robert Rubin and Jacob Weisberg
    Rubin’s life has been interesting, though his recollections feel prepared and airbrushed; this is a filtered autobiography. More interesting were the examples of his probabilistic point of view in which good decisions are “good” because of their process, not because of their outcome. (Not a novel idea, I know, but Rubin’s examples played out on a larger scale than most.)
  • The Whole Internet: User’s Guide and Catalog by Ed Krol
    Published in 1993 and does what it suggests. Pretty fantastic depiction of how far we’ve come.
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows by JK Rowling
    Re-read. I’d forgotten how much of the book is spent searching for the hollows.
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by JK Rowling
    Re-read. Much plot movement.
  • The Unwinding by George Packer
    Another of my 2013 favorites. Packer uses character vignettes to sketch his point – America’s middle class is disappearing, and we’re all becoming less content – without moralistic thwacks. If only Jimmy Carter had had Packer’s nuance.
  • Made in America by Sam Walton
    Sam Walton’s autobiography, which isn’t as self-congratulatory as most books of this type. You can probably skip it.
  • Masters of Doom by David Kushner
    Lighter on the drama and detail of id software than I’d expected. I’d also been hoping for the story of how gaming rose to a mutli-billion dollar industry, but this book wasn’t that either.
  • The Book of Merlyn by T.H. White
    Felt like a book from its era, the eve and onset of World War II in Britain. This was more a philsophical treatise, touching on why men can be evil and told through animals and allegory, than a fantasty novel.
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
    Donna Tartt wrote The Secret History, one of my favorite books, so I was unreasonably excited to read The Goldfinch (published: October 2013.) I enjoyed it; it’s well written, gloomy, long (784 pages!), and more uplifting than I’d anticipated. If you’re trying to decide whether to read it, Stephen King’ NYTimes review might be helpful. (But really: just give it a go!)
  • How Asia Works by Joe Studwell
    Basic premise: North East Asia developed because of 1) land-reform policies; 2) industrialization policies that supported infant industries and required them to compete globally; and 3) finance policies that supported all this. South East Asian countries messed up one, two, or all three of these things and were “left behind.” While I’m sympathetic to the argument, I’m skeptical of the comparative treatment: how much was this a book about development policy in Asia, versus development policy anywhere? For if this were a globally-focused book, I think the conclusions would change; in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, you see smallholder farms and what Studwell calls “gardening,” but you don't see more than subsistence farming. Is that because gardening “doesn’t work” everywhere, gardening must be coupled with state investment in marketing, distribution, and technology, these governments failed to industrialize, or something else?

If you’re curious for bookish updates on a more-than-annual basis, I also track books I’ve read in a spreadsheet and on Laisin.