I read seventy-eight books this year, seventeen more than last. That’s somewhat misleading, as I did more easy reading, but by raw page count I was still quite a bit over. You can find the full list over at Good Reads. Here are my top picks.
The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher
This was a recommendation from my friend Noam. It’s about how language evolved, or more specifically how we think it might have evolved and why we think that. One of my favourite things about this book was how it started with what linguists thought hundreds of years ago and then proceeded through how and why that thought has changed over time, ending with the limits of current day knowledge.
If you feel like language is deteriorating over time and kids these days just don’t even, this book will make you feel better about it. It did for me.
Buy a hard copy. The numerous diagrams aren’t easy to read on Kindle.
Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutscher
Same author as the previous, but on how language shapes (or not) how we think. I don’t often feel like putting two books from the same author in these lists, but I loved this for all the same reasons as the last.
In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent
A fun journey through Esperanto, Klingon and more. I love this kind of hands-on book: it culminates in the author attending a Klingon conference and getting her certification. Yes, that’s a thing. I spent a decent amount of time with Duolingo and Memrise learning the basics of Esperanto and Lojban alongside this.
Catalytic Coaching by Garold L. Markle
Plenty of useful ideas that I was able to apply successfully at work. Very critical of traditional performance reviews.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondō
I don’t know why I bought this book, and it’s certainly not written for me (“most people think I always knew that tidying was what I wanted to do, but actually I just wanted to get married!”), but I really liked the approach, and I actually did it. Do a proper tidy once, then you’re set for life. Only keep things that bring you joy.
Prime Obsession by John Derbyshire
Explains the complicated Riemann Hypothesis to a lay audience, of which I am a member. I love this kind of book. Does a great job of laying out all the steps and providing sufficient context for understanding what the hypothesis is and why it is important.
One, Two, Three by David Berlinski
Similar type of the book to the last one, but tackling the absolute basics: what is a number? How can we prove addition? His style is unique to me: half literature, half math.
Questions about zero now resolve themselves in favor of the artifice that the empty set corresponds to zero. “It’s like a party with no guests,” a student once remarked.
Running books were a large contributor to my page count this year. I read fifteen of them.
Bowerman and the Men of Oregon by Kenny Moore
Excellent biography about an amazing man.
How to Race the Mile by Jeff Hollobaugh
Nerdiest book I read this year. Descriptions of over a hundred mile races covering every technique from the long drive to the sprint finish. Includes interviews with many of the runners in the described races, getting their opinion on how it went. To complement, many of the races are up on Youtube. I watched a lot of this kind of thing:
You’d have to be pretty into running to enjoy this book.
Run Faster by Brad Hudson
Solid advice on putting together a training plan from a top coach. Most of my training this year was based on this.
Racing Weight by Matt Fitzgerald
Another sensible book from another experienced coach. You can’t lose weight as an endurance athlete by calorie restriction, because you won’t have enough fuel to perform. Includes a lot of science. I bought a scales! Since my crossfit high at the end of last year I’ve dropped about 8kg and 4 points of body fat percentage this year switching to running.
I didn’t read as much fiction this year, down from 30% to 25%. And half of those were the Discworld series.
Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
Last year I said I wasn’t a Vonnegut fan and was surprised he ended up on my list. Now he’s been here two years in a row so I guess I just started with the wrong books.
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
Coming out of a bout of depressing books, I asked a friend to recommend something happy. This was a fun book, and inspired me to start reading through the Discword series again.
Like Life by Lorrie Moore
Glad I followed through on my plan to read more Moore. I read a couple of her books this year, but this was the best.
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins
This book was written forty years ago but feels like it was written yesterday. Pretty weird, and you need to excuse a philosophy dump every now and then, but his style is unmatched.
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
Very accessible read about end of life care, something I’ve thankfully not had a lot of experience with. The author threads his own personal story through a summary of research about what works, what doesn’t, and where the medical industry needs to move.
The Utopia of Rules by David Graeber
Possibly my book of the year. Nobody likes bureaucracy, so why does it keep happening? Well written, thought provoking, yet doesn’t take itself too seriously – the appendix includes a review of the third Batman movie through a political lense.
Is there any wonder, then, that every time there is a social crisis, it is the Right, rather than the Left, which becomes the venue for the expression of popular anger? The Right, at least, has a critique of bureaucracy. It’s not a very good one. But at least it exists. The Left has none. As a result, when those who identify with the Left do have anything negative to say about bureaucracy, they are usually forced to adopt a watered-down version of the right-wing critique.
Command and Control by Eric Schlosser
Engaging and scary read about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Mostly technical details – where the safety systems came from, just how often armed B52 bombers crashed/exploded/accidentally dropped something they shouldn’t have, etc… – but enough political stuff that you can follow along even if you didn’t grow up through the Cold War.
Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist by Roger Lowenstien
A touch syncophantic at times, but overall a solid biography. I write code for fun; Buffett reads annual reports. He eats a burger and fries everyday for lunch and still flies economy. I respect that.
The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt
My other contender for book of the year. Why do the political right and left seem to be talking past each other? How does moral reasoning actually work? Strongly rooted in research, this changed how I see the world and explained much.
I never wrote a full review because I didn’t have anything to say that the New York Times didn’t already say in their review:
You’re smart. You’re liberal. You’re well informed. You think conservatives are narrow-minded. You can’t understand why working-class Americans vote Republican. You figure they’re being duped. You’re wrong.
Bonus: Books other people liked that I didn’t
2666 by Roberto Bolaño
A thousand pages of very pretty writing, that is often gratuitous and goes nowhere. It has very good parts, but I was reading it for a month and wanted to throw it into a fire more than once. Reading the five parts separately, with space in between, would have improved the experience I think. I enjoyed and agree with this review:
This, at least, is often how reading the book feels: that Bolaño is conducting an experiment in how much he can remove of what is usually considered fiction’s principal pleasure—getting to know imaginary characters—without driving us away.
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
A triple-threat Harry Potter tells his life story, but doesn’t get to any of the interesting parts. Friend-zones the girl.
I haven’t read fantasy for years and thought it about time to try again. Everyone recommended this series. There was so much setup here that I still might read the next book to see what he does with it.
The Martian by Andy Weir
Macguyver in space, with science. Which it does really well, I just found myself wanting something else. Like characters with emotional complexity. Or some actual tragedy. Probably tells you more about me than the book.