Annus Horribilis in Reading

New Year Blooper!

On the first day of 2021, early in the morning, I tagged along a friend to take some pictures of the sunrise. It was a little cold in the beginning but only tolerably so, and then slowly it became windy and really cold. We quickly went home.

Even after witnessing the fact that the sun actually rose on this new year’s morning, I am having trouble believing the year past is indeed past. The vast majority of us will remember 2020 as Quite A Bad Year, and reasonably so. Its badness still lingers. We have no idea when it will all go away for good.

The past year was not that horrible for me personally, and am grateful for the good things and being spared of the bad things. It still is a year I too wish to forget. We did a couple of long-ish road trips, but other than that we mostly stayed home, most of the time. I did some work. I read some books. That is about it.

I finally sat down and wrote a list of books I read in the past year, for, you know, memories’ sake.

January

1. Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, Roger McNamee

McNamee was an early mentor to Zuckerberg, and came to realize that Facebook wasn’t going to turn out the way he hoped. This is essentially a mea culpa. An important book, but overwritten, and annoying to read.

My main annoyance was that the book attributed Bad Cruel Orange Man’s 2016 election success almost entirely to Facebook, and in particular, malicious foreign actors who were able to influence voting American public to convince to vote for Bad Cruel Orange Man. I do not believe that to be a correct and accurate interpretation of events.

2. Let’s Make Ramen!: A Comic Book Cookbook, Hugh Amano and Sarah Becan

I never learned to correctly appreciate ramen. I like comic books and cookbooks when they are well produced. This book is both. I found it a little tedious, but ramen affictionados will certainly like this one.

This was the first physical book I got to check out from Toronto Public Library using my brand-new library card. Like many other things in the corona-panic stricken world, access to the fantastic Reference Library soon became limited. A great shame, considering that the branch was just a few minutes away from our first apartment in Toronto.

February

3. A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind, Shoukei Matsumoto

People and things in our lives make us who we are, and it follows that a clean house leads to a clean mind. Therefore one must strive to have fewer, cleaner possessions. Clean yourself too. Japanese monasteries appear clean at all times, because cleaning is the first order of business in those monasteries.

4. Games without Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan, Tamim Ansary

A fantastic, insightful, and eminently readable take on Afghanistan’s past and present from someone who was born in Kabul, and managed to move to the west after high school, just as things were getting worse.

March

5. Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales, Oliver Sacks

Short sweet collection of essays on appreciating lovely things: libraries, ferns, gingko trees, cuttlefish, gardens, the human brain.

6. The River of Consciousness, Oliver Sacks

Another collection of essays, because one does not stop after reading the first collection.

7. Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Cal Newport

I have deeply rooted poor Internet hygiene from the past twenty odd years to weed out, and badly needed this reminder. Even prior to reading this book, I had largely abandoned Twitter, and that still remains pretty much the extent of my digital minimalism.

8. The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World, Peter Wohlleben.

Summary of research and experiences as a forester: trees talk to each other, they have “friends” and “communities”, and they possess various means to defend themselves against harm.

April

9. Skin in the Game: The Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life, Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Taleb argues that separating risk from decisions is a bad thing, and yet in the modern world the most important decisions are made by those only benefit from the upsides of their decisions, and suffer no downsides. Taleb’s prime example is that of Robert Rubin, who evidently is one of the many that passed through the revolving door between Wall Street and US Federal Government.

10. The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of Wildlife, Lucy Cooke

A collection of essays about sloths, beavers, eels, hyenas, vultures, bats, frogs, storks, hippos, moose, panda, penguins, and chimpanzees that dispel many widely existing myths about them, and narrate many surprising aspects of their lives.

11. Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction, Judith Grisel

This book is both memoir and a summary of research to date: the author was an addict once, got “cleaned up”, and went to graduate school to study addiction, and threw herself to research with passionate intensity. Do some unfortunate folks possess personalities that are particularly addiction-prone, and if they do, why?

12. The Secret Life of Cows, Rosamund Young

The author grew up in a farm, and runs a farm, so this book is mainly a collection of cow-related anecdotes: cows have personalities and personality quirks, they pick favorite friends from others in the herd, and they respond differently to different people.

13. The Way Home: Tales from a Life Without Technology, Mark Boyle

Mark Boyle lived without using money for some years, wrote a manifesto about it, and then took it to the next logical level: he chose to live without some technology (phones, computers, electricity) for another year, in rural Ireland.

Boyle wrote a series of columns for the Guardian in that year about his experiment. He wrote on paper by candlelight, sent his work to editors of the Guardian by post, and then his editors would forward interesting reader reactions to him via post.

14. Loserthink: How Untrained Brains Are Ruining America, Scott Adams

As subjects of the most powerful empire that has ever existed in human history, Americans are targets of unprecedented levels of propaganda, via both old and new media channels. The propaganda has gotten so sophisticated that it is next to impossible to separate fact from fiction, but fret not, Adams is here to teach you how to prevail in the war for your minds!

There’s some useful advice in here. Some of it read like practical advice on how to win your everyday social media fistfights, which is a losing proposition to begin with. It would be wise to apply the advice from the book to the book itself.

May

15. Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong, Eric Barker

I barely remember anything from this book, which must be the reason success eludes me?

16. Unspeakable: Chris Hedges Talks with David Talbot about the Most Forbidden Topics in America, Chris Hedges

Hedges has been a foreign correspondent for New York Times for several years, and covered many conflicts in the middle east in which the US military was involved. Much of what he reported at great risk went unpublished, because that is what those in power wanted. This “book” is really an interview (in audiobook form, I’m counting it as a book nevertheless), and it talks about the way things are in the intertwined world of American politics, war machinery, and journalism.

Back when I read Hedges’ Death of the Liberal Class, it helped me to make better sense of what is termed as liberal/left-wing politics in the US, which in reality is neither particularly liberal nor very left-wing. With this book, I found myself agreeing with most of his observations and disagreeing with many of his conclusions.

17. Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, Atul Gawande

A collection of essays, based around the idea of medical practitioners becoming better at what they do, even with their human limitations.

18. The Happiness of Pursuit: Finding the Quest That Will Bring Purpose to Your Life, Chris Guillebeau

The author visited all the countries in the world by the age of thirty-five. This is the kind of pursuit he talks about in this book, with stories of people pursuing various similar “quests”.

19. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, Atul Gawande

I purchased a used copy of the hardbound edition of this book ten years or so ago. It is still in a box in friends’ basement in Chicago with the rest of my book. I finally listened to the audiobook version, and declared victory. And this turned out to be the one I liked least among Gawande’s books.

20. The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng

Kind of like Loserthink, but for the other side. It seemed to me that the author is someone who has already taken a side, which can’t be the way to go if you are trying to think logically. Maybe that will work if you are trying to win some arguments on social media, or for smart people to convince themselves that they’re right and their adversary is wrong.

21. Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living, Elizabeth Willard Thames

Author and husband saved up enough, and then left their urban professional lives to go live in rural Vermont. A memoir that could serve as a how-to guide, if you happen to be in a similar group.

June

22. Profiles in Corruption: Abuse of Power by America’s Progressive Elite, Peter Schweizer

There’s a surprising list of names under scrutiny:

Notice that the first two from the list came to occupy the highest offices in the US this year, with considerable approval from all kind of media?

It should not be shocking or surprising if you’ve been attempting to separate signal and noise from the previous four years. A career mired in corruption does not make a dent in your chances of success in the most powerful country in the world. All that matters is appearances. You just have to successfully sell your narrative to a large enough majority of voters.

This book cured me of my faith in some politicians, and turned me into a skeptic of all career politicians. One has to wonder if progressive posturing and proximity to power is a formula for familial wealth.

(Schweizer specifically targets a set of prominent Democrats in this book, but he does not shy away from scrutizing conservatives either: he did put Mitch McConnel and Donald Trump’s family in under the lens in Secret Empires. I admire him for that.)

23. The Diabetes Code: Prevent and Reverse Type 2 Diabetes Naturally, Jason Fung

I am under moral obligation to read and re-read everything Dr. Jason Fung has written. If you have made it this far, I urge you to read his books.

24. Designing Your Work Life: How to Thrive and Change and Find Happiness at Work, Bill Burnett

This book urges you to think like a designer of your life. Designers do not think their way forward, but they build their way forward: they are curious, they build stuff, they try stuff, they re-frame problems to make better sense, they seek help, and they understand that it is a process.

25. Fortitude: American Resilience in the Era of Outrage, Dan Crenshaw

Crenshaw trained hard to become navy seal, went to Afghanistan, came back home injured, recovered, and eventually sought public office. This is part memoir, and a screed about his firmly held convictions and opinions as a conservative.

I want to cheer for good people that seek public office, irrespective of party affiliations. I find Crenshaw really interesting, although by now I should know better than to be a naive believer.

26. Stuff Every Gardener Should Know, Scott Meyer

Basics for gardeners, mainly north American ones: starting seeds, growing vegetables and flowering plants, herbs, soil, composting, perennials and annuals, trees, helpful insects, pests, wildlife control, and the such. Short, simple, and useful.

July

27. Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures, Nick Pyenson

What we know, so far, about the evolutionary history and present lives of some of the most amazing co-habitants of our planet.

28. Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, Peter Godfrey-Smith

Octopuses (and cuttlefish, and other cephalopods) split off at a very earlier branch of the evolutionary tree from the rest of us. As a result, they posses an intelligence that is considerably different from what we have normally known. They are closest to an intelligent “alien” life form we will likely ever meet.

29. The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—And Us, Richard O. Prum.

In The Descent of Man, Darwin originally proposed that mate choices are more strongly guided by a sense of beauty than other, more “practical” parameters. Sexual selection is not merely based on “fitness”, and that also has guided evolution. This was largely ignored because of the prevailing moral standards at the time. This book makes a strong case with several examples, from avian and human worlds.

30. Dollars and Sense: How We Misthink Money and How to Spend Smarter, Dan Ariely

Often we’re bad with keeping and growing our hard-earned money, because we are irrational creatures, because evolution made us that way. Maybe there is a way to keep our guard up.

August

31. The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins

Strong offense against faith, and a strong defense of atheism. I felt that this book was combative, although one could see why. I think some perspective on why we are the way we are in matters of faith would have made a stronger book.

32. The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, Daniel J. Levitin.

My mind is so disorganized that this book had no chance of leaving any impression at all. I mean, I know that information overload is bad: I am a living proof of why and how it is bad. I suspect we all are.

33. Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, Mona Eltahawy

Eltahawy, an Egyptian-American activist, makes a case about the plight of woman in countries where Islam is the pre-dominant religion. She was sexually assaulted by her male peers one night in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, as they were protesting the repressive regime together.

September

34. The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness, Sy Montgomery

I felt that this could book could be a companion to Other Minds. This is mostly about the connection the author felt for several octopuses in New England Aquarium, and the connection she felt that the octopuses felt for their human captors.

35. Appetites: A Cookbook, Anthony Bourdain

I had to read this because I admired Bourdain, who was clearly a man who had a way with words. Although the recipes presented are those of simpler, approachable dishes that Bourdain liked to prepare for family and friends, I haven’t tried making any new-to-me dishes from this book. Some of the ingredients are difficult to obtain, and then what do you do with them after you’ve made the dish once?

I do want to follow Bourdain’s recipes from Kuching and Hanoi at an unspecified future date. We will see about that.

36. The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains, Robert H. Lustig.

Not about Twitter and Facebook, but how food industry managed to hack American minds in a dangerous and unhealthy fashion, long before Twitter and Facebook did that in a more spectacular and equally dangerous fashion.

37. Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook, Anthony Bourdain

Bourdain dishes out insults for some people whom he considers worthy of his insults: television chefs, restaurant critics. Delicious.

(To appreciate this book more fully, please watch the episodes of Treme that Bourdain co-wrote.)

38. Ship of Fools: How a Selfish Ruling Class Is Bringing America to the Brink of Revolution, Tucker Carlson

I used to admire Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska very much. Sasse appeared to be a rare combination of scholar and public servant: PhD in history from Yale, author of two books that I quite liked (Them: Why We Hate Each Other – and How to Heal and The Vanishing American Adult). What does it matter if he is a Republican?

And then Tucker Carlson did a segment on the ruin of Sidney, Nebraska. Sidney’s main business, Cabela’s, had managed to survive the onslaught on industrial small town America, until Cabela’s was forced to sell to a large retail chain, by a hedge fund managed by a major Republican donor. Jobs were lost, Sidney went to ruin. Carlson called Sasse out on his complicity. I lost a politician I admired.

Thus I found myself agreeing with the rants and ravings of a Fox News talking head.

39. How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, Michael Pollan

Pollan went underground to investigate some historically vilified psychedelics. Some of the vilification happened as a result of the political climate at the time of vilification; it also helped that scientists who had been studying them at the time had so thoroughly mismanaged their studies.

Psychedelics are making a modest comeback for their therapeutic properties. Pollan tried some of them, well, not exactly for science, but to mostly to satisfy his curiosity, and then wrote an extended treatise on their history, present, and likely future.

This book did not go into neuroscience much. That disappointed me a little bit, but Never Enough addresses that quite well.

40. Don’t Burn This Book: Thinking for Yourself in an Age of Unreason, Dave Rubin

I had been on Twitter long enough to be familiar with the talking points of what is seen as the “liberal” side of politics, and I am thoroughly bored and annoyed by them. Dave Rubin is someone who used to be a liberal and then he navigated over to the other side.

I found this interesting, perhaps more interesting than I normally would have, specifically because finding someone who has violated the faith is cause for strong disapproval these days.

October

41. The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms, Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

You would think that Taleb’s aphorisms could have been a bunch of tweets, and you would not be too wrong. Taleb maintains an active Twitter account, so I suppose these were the ones he could not bring himself to drown in the horrible pandemonium.

42. Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes, and Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking, Anthony Bourdain

Recipes here are a little more intimidating than Apetites. I plan to cook none of the dishes from this cookbook, unless I somehow find myself toiling in the kitchen of a French bistro. I read it for love of Bourdain.

43. Quickies mini book, Emily Dubberley

A book about spontaneous sex, with some naughty pictures. This was listed as library staff pick in Overdrive app.

44. Good Economics for Hard Times: Better Answers to Our Biggest Problems, Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo

What I understood is that at least some of the “better answers” involve giving extended power and more money to government and bureaucrats. It bothered me that Banerjee and Duflo have chosen to ignore some very strong counter-evidence against their arguments.

45. Life in the Fasting Lane: The Essential Guide to Making Intermittent Fasting Simple, Sustainable, and Enjoyable, Jason Fung, Eve Mayer, and Megan Ramos

Some science, some medical practice stories, some personal stories. I’d have preferred mostly science, but then Dr. Fung has written other books which cover exactly that.

November

46. The Longevity Paradox: How to Die Young at a Ripe Old Age, Steven R. Gundry.

This is a book about extending our “health span”, or the good years of our lives without relying on medical care.

There is some good content about quality of food, importance of gut flora, role of physical activity, importance of social connections, some probably useful takeaways from “blue zones”, etc. It was all quite good until Dr. Gundry started his long list of supplements that he recommends, some of which are sold by his company.

47. Why Is Sex Fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality, Jared Diamond

Humans are different from other animals. We form long-term relationships, rearing children is (usually) considered a joint duty, sex is a (usually) private and (usually) recreational activity, female ovulation is concealed, and females undergo menopause. This book is a biologists speculation about why our bodies the way they are.

48. Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives, Daniel J. Levitin

Several factors (genes, upbringing, environment) affect longevity in ways that are hard to study and hard to predict. This book discusses cognitive and physical decline that happens with aging, and strategies to prolong health span. Notably,

49. Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom, Katherine Eban

Generic equivalents of brand-name drugs were touted as an inexpensive alternative that should have saved Americans a lot of money. In reality, manufacturing and quality control standards are so poor that sometimes generics can be ineffective at best, and life-threatening at worst. Since generics are usually made in India and their ingredients come from China, the US FDA have little oversight over the process. Further, FDA’s process for granting rights to marketing generics in the US was flawed, since it favored whoever filed the application first over the quality of their products.

Bottle of Lies mainly tracks Ranbaxy, the ill-fated Indian pharmaceutical company, their fraudulent manufacturing and business practices, efforts of an insider whistle-blower, and the work of FDA agents. It took a very long time for the slow-moving FDA to act upon information they received from the whistle-blower at great risk of their personal safety. This is bad in the USA and other countries with powerful enforcement agencies, and it gets a lot worse in Africa, where the poorest quality drugs are dumped.

Ranbaxy eventually went out of business, but the book does not end in a positive note: today the diaspora of Ranbaxy executives are everywhere in the generic drugs industry today, and so are the fraudulent practices they learned there.

Truly terrifying.

December

50. The Body: A Guide for Occupants, Bill Bryson

Grand tour of the human body: skin and hair, human microbiome, brain, heart/blood, skeleton, immune system, lungs and breathing, bipedalism, equilibrium, digestion, the nervous system, diseases, food, medicine.

Of particular interest were the parts about pandemic. The most often repeated phrases in this book must be “nobody knows” and “we do not know”, which is pretty much the summary: we know a great deal about our bodies, but there’s far more we know little about.

51. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr

I have it on good authority that the fifty-odd browser tabs I seem to have open at any time of the day is a constant source of distraction, thereby making me more stupid. This page itself is an example the work produced by my own stupid distracted mind. I mean, look at all these links!

We know that the original promise of the Internet as some sort of great library has been greatly compromised. None of the arguments this book put forward sounded new to me, and then I realized that it was originally published in 2011. Oh.

52. Right Here, Right Now: Politics and Leadership in the Age of Disruption, Stephen J. Harper

Years back, I was led to believe that the then Prime Minister of Canada is some kind of great conservative Satan who was enacting some terrible policies. Recently I asked some Canadian friends about their opinion of Harper, and they reassured me that Harper indeed is some kind of great conservative Satan who had enacted some terrible policies.

My views about politics and the nature of power have changed over the last few years. I became interested in knowing why we do the things we do, and why we believe in the things we do. I am no longer willing to believe the things I am told. So I decided that I would rather listen to Harper’s own words and do my own mental filtering, however faulty that process may be.

Harper claims that his administration had done a better handling of economy, immigration, and trade in Canada. In the US though, the mishandling of those very things lead to Donald Trump’s election in 2016 – contrary to popular narrative, it did not happen due to an alarming rise in racism and xenophobia among Americans. About 2.4 million working class jobs have been lost in the US since China’s entry to the World Trade Organization. The presence of about 12 million illegal immigrants have put a further downward pressure on working class jobs and wages. Both major American political parties and several previous administrations have failed to adequately protect the working class. And thus, President Trump happened.

Having lived in middle America, having seen the ghastly shells of many formerly prosperous industrial towns, and having left the place with a lot of affection to its residents, I tend to agree with this point of view. The vast majority of Americans are neither racists nor xenophobes – they are just very tired of their own country’s business and political elites. That is an entirely decent and reasonable position.

Thank you, PM Harper, for articulating things I thought I knew! Now let me go find some reasons to be disappointed in you. That seem to happen inevitably, every single time I think I like a political leader.

(Posted on February 7, 2021.)