Reading 2014

Updated 28 Dec 2014

Top books this year

Impro, by Keith Johnstone (5/5)
This has been on my list to read for ages… why did I wait so long? It’s nominally about improvisation for theatre actors, but really it’s as much about the theatre of life. People play funny games, and behave in ways mysterious even to themselves.

The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, by Marcel Mauss (5/5)
Very interesting essay on the history and function of “gift giving” (gift almost certainly carries the wrong connotation). Covers the potlatch culture of West Coast natives, Brahmin society in India, and the origins of Roman and German law. Fascinating to see how these traditions are retained in contemporary society, either through explicit laws or implicit cultural expectations.

Patterns of High Performance: Discovering the Ways People Work Best, by Jerry L. Fletcher (4/5)
This book has some interesting reminders about recognizing and working within your personal best patterns, and the individuality of those patterns. The format is mostly anecdotal, with case studies from the author’s consulting practice, so a lot of it is really general coaching observations, and there’s very little methodology. Still, it made me reflect on my own situations, and could definitely be a useful trigger.

All the rest

Watchmen, by Alan Moore (3/5)
A few of my friends consider this to be an amazing work, but I think I just read it at the wrong time. I remember that feeling of Cold War impending doom (although I was relatively young), but it’s just too far away to give this real impact. I do like Alan Moore’s point about Rorschach being an exploration of what Batman would be in real life (psychopathic).

Boy: Tales of Childhood, by Roald Dahl (3/5)

Diagraphics, by Macarena San Martin (3/5)
Some nice examples of infographics (not analytic visualizations). Lots of stuff that didn’t appeal to me visually, but there are a few gems in there to inspire.

Replay, by Ken Grimwood (3/5)
Meh. A fairly predictable run of events, mostly about getting a do-over on things you regret in life, with an un-surprising conclusion. I breezed through it on a plane ride.

A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics, by Donald Richie (3/5)
Turns out seventeenth-century tea masters were the original hipsters, elevating the old and ordinary to a refined aesthetic (complicated simplicity). Of course Japan has compartmentalized and codified aesthetics to an extreme (unique?) level – this essay also reminds us that these concepts have complex histories, in which they were redefined and repurposed to suit elite political and class distinctions. It was an interesting but not inspiring read.

Data Points: Visualization That Means Something, by Nathan Yau (3/5)
A good, solid, overview of creating meaningful visualizations. There is much more detail in books like “Grammar of Graphics”, “Semiology of Graphics”, or any of Tufte’s work, but this one pulls the basics together in one place, with good looking examples.

The Best Short Stories, by Guy de Maupassant (4/5)
Elaborate and unresolved. His style kind of grew on me.

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, by Michael Lewis (4/5)
Frightening… but not terribly surprising. Take a bunch of people with a history of bad behaviour, give them a financial incentive and don’t watch them closely, and they will behave badly (ie, make off like bandits). Engaging writing, but it could have been shorter.

Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself, by Daniel H. Pink (3/5)
Lots of values in here that resonate with me. The book is quite dry, and seems a little dated (2001) – it would be interesting to see newer numbers to see how these trends progressed, especially in light of services like AWS and Stripe that make it easier than ever to independently serve your stuff to the world. Feels like a bit of a companion to The Cluetrain Manifesto.

The Emperor’s River: Travels to the Heart of a Resurgent China, by Liam James D’Arcy-Brown (3/5)
Interesting topic, but not a very engaging read.

Body and Mature Behavior: A Study of Anxiety, Sex, Gravitation, and Learning, by Moshé Feldenkrais (4/5)
A holistic view of body and mind, layering of the nervous system, and patterns of development. I don’t know if his theories are strictly correct, but they’re quite interesting and thought-provoking.

Marching Bands Are Just Homeless Orchestras, by Tim Siedell (3/5)
Tweets in a book. Some hilarious one-liners in here. Very short.

How to Lie with Statistics, by Darrell Huff (4/5)
A classic. I think people are a little more aware of “correlation-causation”, etc, these days, but the warnings about unqualified averages, percentages, general charting trickery are timeless.

Language Acquisition Made Practical, by E. Thomas Brewster (5/5)
A very detailed framework for building your own language study plan. It was originally written for people learning a language where there was no pre- existing material (eg, making recordings, etc), while these days you probably already have access to lots of high-quality audio. But it’s still important to understand a structure and set of techniques – your Pimsleur or Assimil course will get you started, but you really have to take ownership of the process if you want to reach a higher level.

Artisan Cheese Making at Home, by Mary Karlin (5/5)
Gorgeous pictures, home-sized recipes, and lots of information on tools, cultures, etc.

Scope and Closures (You Don’t Know JS), by Kyle Simpson (5/5)
Brief and extremely clear explanation. Some good points (eg, details of function hoisting) that I hadn’t tripped over before, but am glad to know now.

Observations of a Straight White Male with No Interesting Fetishes, by Peter Hunt Welch (4/5)
Amusing and quick. Sort of reminds me of Chuck Klosterman.

Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, by Elizabeth Dunn (3/5)
Some interesting points, but it felt like it could be half the length. Just full of “Studies show…” and “Researchers asked students…”

This & Object Prototypes (You Don’t Know JS), by Kyle Simpson (4/5)
Another solid review of the internals of JS. All devs should probably read this, if only to drive the idea out of their heads that OO and inheritance are somehow intrinsic to software.

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, by Peter Thiel (4/5)
A clarion call to Definite Optimism… build the Better Future, starting now.

十個詞彙裡的中國 (China in Ten Words), by Yu Hua (4/5)
The tragedy of the Cultural Revolution, followed by the rebound into economic explosion (but with incredible disparity inside the country). A very interesting perspective on contemporary Chinese culture.

Dreaming in Chinese, by Deborah Fallows (3/5)
A fun and very light (after reading ‘China in Ten Words’) take on aspects of Chinese culture, via the use, structure, and idioms of the language.

The Man Within My Head, by Pico Iyer (3/5)
I’m a big fan of Graham Greene, and this gave me lots of new perspectives on him, and will make me go back to reread some books. Overall, this one started strong and interesting, but went adrift in the middle (uncertain structure), then finished reasonably well.


You can also check out everything I've been reading on Goodreads.