Reading 2018

Updated 03 Jan 2019

Top books this year

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, by John Vaillant (4/5)
Gripping. Part thriller, part anthropology and history lesson, and part appeal for conservation action.

Liminal Thinking, by Dave Gray (5/5)
Concise and direct, but definitely not easy. These are great models for your life, if you can make the space to look.

Principles: Life and Work, by Ray Dalio (4/5)

Everything else

Operative Design: A Catalogue of Spatial Verbs, by Anthony di Mari (3/5)
Cute little book, fun to flip through. Reminds me of lots of shitty buildings I’ve seen.

Pragmatic Capitalism, by Cullen Roche (5/5)
Excellent. A clear explanation of the high-level structure of the US financial system. Directly addresses several persistent myths and misunderstandings.

The Obstacle Is the Way, by Ryan Holiday (1/5)
Repetitive and shallow, this is just a collection of repacked anecdotes without any actual insight, and critically, without any challenge to think for yourself and find your own meaning. Skip this and read the originals.

Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance (3/5)
An interesting window into a marginalized subculture, one often caricatured and not understood. Made me think about how embedded we all are in our own cultural frame, and how hard it is to see anything differently than that.

Infomocracy (The Centenal Cycle, #1), by Malka Ann Older (3/5)
2016 US election plus The Diamond Age. It’s a light, fun read.

Sail and Rig Tuning, by Ivar Dedekam (4/5)
I picked this up purely to answer the question “Does forestay tension have the same effect as jib halyard tension?” (answer: No). Lots of great, very direct, information here collected in one place, usually scattered around in bits and pieces. Recommended.

The Water’s Edge, by Karin Fossum (4/5)
Minimalist, and yet so rich. The plot is quite direct, but the characters are woven together beautifully.

Engineering Play: A Cultural History of Children’s Software, by Mizuko Ito (2/5)
The topic is really interesting, but I found the writing so dry and academic that it just wasn’t engaging. Really hard to extract the highlights or conclusions from this text.

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, by Robert Fulghum (4/5)

Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation, by Ken Liu (3/5)
An interesting collection, some deep, some shallow, some impenetrable. The authors’ essays at the end, about the history of sci-fi in China, were at least as interesting as the stories.

Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight (3/5)
It’s an interesting story/history, the grit that it takes to start and succeed at something like this. I really enjoyed the beginning, but it went on too long for me, without any real reflection or insight. Sometimes felt “too polished”, a little repetitive – keep in mind it was ghostwritten.

Doughnut Economics, by Kate Raworth (3/5)

The Complete Redux Book, by Ilya Gelman (4/5)
It’s a good, broad, survey of all the things in Redux that you should really know as a foundation (and are impossible to find collected in one place otherwise). Recommended for beginners. If you’re looking for more, I recommend Boris Dinkevich or Nir Kaufman’s Advanced Redux talks for some thoughtful stuff around middleware patterns.

Thinking in Redux, by Nir Kaufman (4/5)
This book is quite slim, but the patterns it references are really important. Most Redux development doesn’t conceive of the system in terms of messaging, but would benefit from it.

Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack, by Andrew Schartmann (3/5)

The Art of the Shim: Low-Alcohol Cocktails to Keep You Level, by Dinah Sanders (3/5)
A unique cocktail book, straight-forward recipes, gorgeous pictures, and very usefully, multiple indexes by mood, kind, ingredients, and era. Has a number of tasty recipes, although somewhat vermouth- and bitters-heavy. I do find many of the flavours a bit “flat” without the extra alcohol.

Teaching Smart People How to Learn, by Chris Argyris (2/5)
All true, but no practical advice.

A Little Book on the Human Shadow, by Robert Bly (4/5)
What drives you that is outside your conscious mind? Who have you ceded power to when you don’t acknowledge the shadow of your nature?

A Quiet Place, by Seicho Matsumoto (3/5)
A different kind of crime novel. I enjoyed the slow build, and then the very palpable tension.

Rethinking Opening Strategy, by Yuan Zhou (3/5)
Always excellent explanations from Yuan Zhou. This book introduces several opening ideas from AlphaGo (first moves, corner enclosures, unusual joseki), and then shows those moves being used in recent pro games. Minus one star for being so short.

It’s Behind You, by Bob Pape (3/5)
A fun ‘war story’ about the chaotic early days of computer games, porting arcade titles over to the various home PCs. I was surprised they had to reproduce almost everything from scratch, copying the art, sound, interaction from playing an arcade machine, or even videos of the game. Quite similar to ‘The Making of Prince of Persia’.

Wine Folly, by Madeline Puckette, Justin Hammack (4/5)
A short reference to tasting, types, and regions, mostly in an infographic format. The visual format for taste profiles (eg, fruit, body, acidity, tannins) and flavours makes it easy to compare and to find something with a specific profile. Not comprehensive, but very approachable and helpful.

Hit Refresh, by Satya Nadella (2/5)
The topics are interesting (eg, culture, restarting a company’s mission, growth mindset), but this book is totally superficial and anecdotal, and doesn’t offer any real insight into those topics.

The 48 Laws of Power, by Robert Greene (4/5)

Systems Performance: Enterprise and the Cloud, by Brendan Gregg (4/5)

How to Take Smart Notes, by Sönke Ahrens (4/5)
Probably a great adjunct to GTD. Certainly a harsh reminder that most of my underlining and marginalia go unused in the end. I’m interested to see if I can apply this in a context that’s not academic writing.

The Vanishing American Adult, by Ben Sasse (3/5)
While I agree with many of the sentiments, and I enjoyed the history-of-public-education angle, I don’t think I’d be convinced by his arguments if I came from an opposing viewpoint. Some suggestions, like exposing children to travel, are very privileged options.

Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson (4/5)
Short, simple, beautiful, poetic. I don’t quite know what to make of this book. I think I’ll have to reread it to really get much of the imagery.

The True Deceiver, by Tove Jansson (4/5)
Sparse, cold, heavy, slow. I found myself rushing through it, but trying to savour the details as I neared the end. I don’t really know how to review this, but I think I’ll read more Tove Jansson.

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, by Lydia Davis (2/5)
Micro-stories really (many are a single paragraph). A few amused me, but most just didn’t click in any way.

The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently, by Richard E. Nisbett (4/5)
Very interesting read because it doesn’t just talk about the perception of language (which seems hard to rationalize via language; plus I thought Sapir-Whorf was on the outs these days?), but it also looks at cultural effects on visual perception, memory, and more. Many, many experiments, with surprising (to me) outcomes, such as cultural preferences for distinguishing categories vs relationships, objects vs environments.

Functional-Light JavaScript, by Kyle Simpson (3/5)
Pragmatic and light-weight, as promised, but I felt the examples were not convincing – it kind of assumes you already understand and agree with the motivations for writing in a more functional style. YMMV, of course. I got more out of Professor Frisby’s guide and videos. BTW, Loved his “You Don’t Know JS” series for Javascript fundamentals, which you should read if you haven’t yet.

Utopia for Realists, by Rutger Bregman (2/5)
A history of Universal Basic Income, shorter work weeks, and a couple of others. Written in a pop-sci style that I don’t like – it’s hard to follow the argument unless you read every paragraph, anecdote, linearly. Ultimately I think it lacked any credible counterpoints, only explaining where the facts were interpreted incorrectly and the moralizing of “the lazy poor”.

The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson (3/5)
Some nice vignettes of summer life on a tiny island. It didn’t grab me.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things, by Ben Horowitz (5/5)
Anecdotal and ostensibly aimed at aspiring CEOs, but there’s so much in here that can be projected down to a team level (hiring, promoting, building the communication structure). Lots of really clear framing of common mistakes and messy thinking.

Lost in Translation: Common Errors in Chinese-English Translation, by Yang Wen (3/5)
There’s a lot of really good info in here, but I was trying to use it in reverse – learning something about the Chinese from the English translations – and I don’t think it’s really intended in that direction. The examples are quite straight-forward and understandable, and in a light, conversational, tone. Probably very useful if you are ESL.

The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, by Barry Schwartz (2/5)
Seems like a really unrealistic model of decision making – people don’t weigh all the dimensions consciously or become paralyzed with everyday choices. I liked the bit about peak-end experience.

The Man Who Fell to Earth, by Walter Tevis (4/5)
What a great, simple but layered, story.

Claus: Legend of the Fat Man, by Tony Bertauski (2/5)

The Art of Living, by Epictetus, Sharon Lebell (3/5)
I think this is an interpretation, rather than a more direct translation, and as such it comes across quite flat for me. The reminders are all good, but very repetitive, and the writing is more like self-help instructions, and not open-ended in the way that forces you to grapple with writing in your own context (good). Nowhere near as compelling as Marcus Aurelius (Gregory Hays translation) was for me. I’ll have to try a different edition.

The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, by Neal Stephenson (4/5)
Re-read, still really enjoyable. I forgot it was set in Shanghai, and now I have a clear picture of the places described. My only complaint is that the ending is weak, doesn’t live up to the rest.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondō (2/5)
A few good reminders, but a lot of words to cover a couple of simple concepts: discard ruthlessly, and have a system for storage so that everything has its place.


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