Every once in a while I am made aware of just how many books I read. Most often when I see my monthly credit card statement and see how much I spend on Amazon’s e-books. (Often a solid 20-30% of my monthly expenditures) The other time I stop to reflect is on days like today where I am carrying 3 kgs of books in my backpack.
I’ve always read a lot. As a child I was so fascinated by the process of reading that I would read everything. (A family friend was quite bemused when a 9 year-old Thomas picked up his copy of The Financial Times and started reading an article on new tax regulations.) I kept up this habit through most of my life, and the amount of travelling I do (especially subways and trains) means that I have an unexpectedly large chunk of unclaimed time.
I know it’s maybe a bit late for a new year resolution (and I hold very little from them in any case), but for those of you who are trying to read more in 2016 I thought I would make a list and review of some of my favourite books, grouped thematically.
First up, nonfiction.
-Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. This book focusses on the decision making processes used by the human mind, not only for individuals but also group and media phenomena. Brilliantly written, Kahneman summarizes the results of a lifetime of experiments into a book of fascinating case studies and thought-provoking results that not only help you understand why normal people can act so stupidly sometimes, but why you do as well.
Economy and Risk:
-Antifragile by Nassim Taleb. A brilliant economist, Taleb became disillusioned with the inherent fragility of the global finance system. Provocatively written, Taleb goes against almost every other financial expert with satire and a flair that is seldom matched. But he doesn’t restrict himself to global economics, rather he also goes into practical applications of his personal philosophy. Try The Bed of Procrustes (A small book of aphorisms) or his first book, Black Swan, if you want to acquaint yourself with his writing.
Science of Logic by Georg Hegel. No wait, that is what you SHOULD NOT READ. Awful stuff. <Shudders perceptibly>
Try Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. I have seldom felt as uplifted by reading a book. At the beginning, the book is the story of a man travelling across America with his son on his motorbike. Between the narrative, he starts reflecting on our hectic modern culture, the over-dependence on academic learning, before summarizing some of the most complicated philosophical thoughts (such as Kant) more succinctly, simply, and fully than I have ever heard in a semester of lectures.
In a pretty similar vein, Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford is also very interesting.
The Other Guy Blinked is written by Roger Enrico, the CEO of Pepsi from 1996 to 2001. He tells his story of the “Cola Wars”, the marketing battle between an underdog Pepsi against Coca-Cola. The scope of the book covers New Coke, the birth of Mirinda, and Michael Jackson’s flaming hair spectacle. Interesting read to understand the corporate mindset and some of the things that are going on in the background of business.
On to fiction!
Lord of the Rings by Tolkien obviously takes the cake, but there are a couple of other very worthy candidates. The Wheel of Time Series by Robert Jordan is perhaps the strongest candidate. This series is MASSIVE, think A Song of Ice and Fire with all the books completed (haha), but each book is amazing. In a world controlled by destiny, Rand al’Thor is a simple farm boy who is forced to flee his home with three childhood friends. Magic, or the Source, is an inborn gift, only that the male side was tainted by the Dark One in the distant past. This means that every male channeler eventually either goes mad or blows himself up. The political kingdoms are partially guided by the mysterious Aes Sedai, female channelers who are magically bound from lying. As the series progresses, we see how destiny unfolds for each of the four main characters in an ever-darkening world.
Robert E. Howard’s short stories of Conan the Barbarian are also fantastic if you are looking for some classic camel-punching action.
I have reread a lot of my favourite books, but I think Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind is the only one I have read 3 times in one year. The book is the personal recollection of Kvothe (pronounced almost like quothe), an enigmatic, brilliant storyteller and musician. You can feel his music and his pains; taste the words of his songs. Being a man I have no time for crying, but it says something that I am have to repeatedly choke down tears while reading this book in the subway. The story continues in The Wise Man’s Fear, and we are desperately waiting for the third installment to land sometime this year.
I’m not sure if H.P. Lovecraft counts as fantasy of sci-fi, but if you are the mood to be deeply disturbed pick up some of his novellas and short stories, obviously “The Call of Cthulhu” but I found “Dagon,” The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, and “The Dunwich Horror” to be even better. Personal experience has shown me that the best time to read Lovecraft is at 4 in the morning on a park bench under a waxing moon. Try it.
Dune by Frank Herbert is The Lord of the Rings of science fiction. Absolutely breathtaking in its scope, the first novel follows the path of young Paul Atreides. In the very distant future, mankind was almost exterminated by their own artificially intelligent machines, which led to a ban on all higher forms of computing. In the wake of this, mankind has pushed itself to the limits- on the one hand the Mentats who exist basically as advanced human computers, and the mysterious Bene Gesserit, an order of women with incredible powers of persuasion and self control. The galaxy has devolved to a form of feudalism, with systems and planets ruled by dukes and barons who owe a weak allegiance to an emperor. The most valuable commodity in the universe is the spice melange, which is only found on the desert world Arrakis, home to the deadly giant sand worms and even deadlier Fremen. Worthwhile hint: the vocabulary is incredibly daunting, you will save yourself a lot of effort by reading the glossary at the back.
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams may also be the funniest books I have ever read. From the bemused and befuddled Arthur Dent to Marvin, the first robot imbued with emotions (who happens to be critically depressed), the characters, their interplay, and the dry-as-a-desert humour is unbelievable.
I’m not sure if this is a canonical genre of literature, but Chris Walley’s Lamb Among the Stars series is absolutely brilliant. He assumes a post-millenial theology, which states that the Second Coming of Jesus will follow the millenium of peace after the overthrow of Satan. This time of peace is almost a return to paradise and innocence of sin, but still fraught with peril and natural disasters. But what if the millenium of peace became, say, 12,000 years? Mankind has spread to the stars, living in peace in an Assembly of Worlds. As the time of peace draws to an end, sin once again enters the lives of communities who have lived in innocence for thousands of generations.
Although I occassionally write poetry, I was never a particular fan of reading it. A entire book of poetry interests me even less. But The Madman by Khalil Gibran may have just changed my mind. It is a book of simple stories and parables, perhaps only 70 pages or so. But while reading it you are continually confronted with those truths that leave an awkward tickling at the back of your mind, ideas that we are more comfortable with simply ignoring. Strongly recommended for anyone who has a few free hours on a lazy afternoon.