As part of my 2009 year-in-review, I tried to make a list of all the books I’d read. Give it a shot for yourself, this is hard to do! I can remember what I’ve read in the last few months, but my memory starts to fade as I get towards summer. I found a few books from the start of the year via Amazon receipts and library records, but I’m sure there are many I missed.
Here’s the list, with a few thoughts about each.
Oracle Bones, Peter Hessler
A follow-up to River Town, this book chronicles Hessler’s time in China as a journalist. Both books offer a great impression of life in China, though this one started to drag on a bit towards the end. Highlights: his discussion of the alphabetization of Chinese and his interactions with Polat, the Uighur trader who wants to emigrate to America.
Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, Atul Gawande
This book fits neatly in the “find six interesting stories and give them a catchy one-word title” genre pioneered by books like Freakonomics. But the stories here are very interesting! And the thesis is, too. In medicine (and presumably elsewhere), there are huge gains to made through non-technological means. Apgar scores reduced child mortality by making it easier to test the efficacy of treatments and changing perceptions about which babies could live. Changed expectations and the sharing of case histories had dramatic effects on the life expectancy of Cystic Fibrosis patients.
The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan
As always, Michael Pollan treads that fine line between greatness and wishy-washiness. The Omnivore’s Dilemma was great. In Defense of Food was not. This book is somewhere in between. At least Michael Pollan is always honest, a welcome change after reading Jered Diamond. His researches into Johnny Appleseed were particularly fun to read. I’d never thought about this historical figure.
The Book Nobody Read, Owen Gingerich
After reading Koestler describe Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus as “the book that nobody read”, Gingerich sets out to find every extant copy and document the marginalia — evidence of who read the book and what they thought. Part of what makes this book fun is just what a quintessential academic Gingerich is. The one thing lacking is any discussion of where Copernicus got his ideas from. This book also implicitly makes a strong argument for digitizing books: think how easy his quest would have been if he’d had search!
The watershed; a biography of Johannes Kepler, Arthur Koestler
A 250-page excerpt from the book with which Gingerich took issue. I’d always though of Kepler as the first astronomer who really “got it”. His three laws cleared away millenia of intellectual baggage. If nothing else, this book rid me of that delusion. Kepler is a really frustrating figure. He is spectacularly modern in some senses, but frustratingly medieval in others. He certainly did not consider the three laws for which we remember him his most significant contribution to science. Koestler clearly has an agenda, but I didn’t find it too distracting.
Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox, Jonathon Tucker
A really fun read. The eradication of smallpox was one of the most significant technological feats of the 20th century, and yet I’d never heard/read anything about it before. There are many great stories in the final steps towards eradication. I learned a lot about disease and pathogens from this book.
Paris from the Ground Up, James H. S. McGregor
I read this on the way to Paris. It gave me a great sense of the city: where things were, what the significant sights were, why they were significant, etc. It follows a bizarre chronological cross thematic progression as you read which I found confusing at first, but ultimately enjoyed. If you’re going to Paris and want to have to have some context for what you’ll be seeing, this is a great book to read!
The Crowded Universe: The Search for Living Planets, Alan Boss
This book chronicles the hunt for extra-solar planets between 1998 and 2008, a time during which this area exploded. It reads like a blog, with dated entries any time something interesting occurred. I wrote the author and suggested he start a blog, but he didn’t want to lose the potential revenue from another book ten years from now. NASA does not come across well in this book. The trials and tribulations of what became the Kepler Mission span the whole time frame.
The Intelligent Asset Allocator, William Bernstein
This is really close to the ideal personal finance book that I’d like to read. Whereas A Random Walk Down Wall Street explains why you should index, this book talks about how you should allocate assets between bonds, stocks, real estate, etc. It’s not particularly prescriptive — it won’t say “you should be 75% stocks and 25% bonds” — but at least it gives a good background on the issues involved. Basic upshot: some diversification is always a good idea.
The Long Emergency, James Kunstler
This book is bad, bad, bad. Kunstler’s argument is that our society is so deeply dependent on oil that, once we run out, the effects will be completely catastrophic. Large swaths of the United States will become uninhabitable. Much of modern agriculture is dependent on fossil fuel-based fertilizers, so billions of people will starve to death as earth’s carrying capacity plummets. Kunstler loves laying out doom and gloom scenarios. The problem is that he can’t be bothered to explain why they’re inevitable. There are zero charts or tables in this book, and his dismissal of technological solutions as cornucopianism is infuriating. See my thoughts on Guns, Germs, Steel for what it’s like to read a non-fiction book where you feel actively mislead.