Every year, I like to make a list of what I’ve read that year in this blog. It’s a lot easier now that I read pretty much everything on a kindle – Amazon kindly keeps track for me. As a family, we bought 173 books this year. From a quick count, I read around 50 of them (including kindle singles, my sons’ favourites, and a few re-reads) plus two or three physical books. So here are most of the non fiction books.
The Origins of AIDS, by Jacques Pepin. Five stars
This was the book I enjoyed most this year. Jacques Pepin is a doctor and epidemiologist, who has done a lot of work in Africa, specifically the Congo over many years. In this book, he puts together all the research (some of it his own) into where AIDS, the human disease, came from. During the course of the book he investigates sleeping sickness vaccination in the 30s; the possible reports of wasting diseases in slave labourers in Belgian Congo, the effects of colonial change on prostitution patterns in Kinshasa, and how the examination of chimpanzee faeces helped work out which strain of SIV was likely to have made the jump.
I won’t spoil the whole story, but the tragic part for me was the fairly plausible link between vaccination campaigns which substantially reduced sleeping sickness, and the consequent rise in HIV infections destroying the same societies decades later.
Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. Five stars.
Rare that I will give two books five stars in one year, but read my review here to see why I rated this one so highly.
A tour of the entire field of behavioural economics, by one of the two men who invented it. Guaranteed to make you think.
The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail but Some Don’t, by Nate Silver. Four and a half stars
I’ll be reviewing this one, so I’ll be brief, but the short review is that it is a great book for actuaries to read. It is a paean to analysis; why good analysis matters, and how you can help yourself make sense of data.
Nate Silver is now an election blogger for the New York Times.
I wrote about him here. One of my top recommendations for this year.
Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, by Ed Glaeser. Four and a half stars.
I’d been waiting for this on kindle for over 12 months before it was finally made available for non US customers. So I was a bit behind the times. Ed Glaeser is a Harvard Economist specialising in cities, and his book argues that cities are the best engines of growth we have. While living in the slums of Kinshasa isn’t a great way to live; looking at the life of people who live elsewhere in the Democratic Republic of Congo tells you why Kinshasa is one of the largest cities in Africa, and growing fast. A fascinating look at the real life of more than half of the people on this planet.
Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive, by Bruce Schneier. Four and a half stars.
I reviewed this book here. Bruce Schneier is an internationally renowned security guru (he even has his own internet meme). He started out as an expert on cryptography, but he now has much wider security interests.
Liars and Outliers is a book that at its core is about trust. What is the optimum level of trust for a society, and how do we make it work for us? How do complex changes in the way our society works change that trust and the trade-offs between cooperating with the group interest and defecting from it? I’m still using the framework from time to time in thinking about some of the trade-offs in everyday life.
Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries, Four stars
Jon Ronson is a modern gonzo journalist. He manages to find the most amazing people who are happy to talk to him, and then writes about the experience. He doesn’t poke fun at them, he takes them seriously, and let’s them speak for themselves. Hard to describe, but if you have read or seen The Men Who Stare at Goats, then you will have some idea what this is like. I will read more of his writing.
Why Have Kids?: A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness, by Jessica Valenti. Three stars
Jessica Valenti was the founder of the Feministing blog, one of the original feminist blogs, which dragged feminism into the internet age. This is her book about parenting, which I bought after watching her rant about a newspaper who wanted her to publicise it by talking about her pregnancy weight loss experience.
It didn’t have as much to say about feminist parenting as I hoped. In fact, I would read this blog post instead, about who mothering (in particular) is a relationship, as much as it is a job, and it helps to separate the two in thinking through the experience.
The Happiest Refugee: My journey from tragedy to comedy, by Anh Do. Four stars
I read this mainly because my son’s Year 6 teacher recommended it to him, but enjoyed it immensely. I’ve seen Anh Do doing stand up a few times, and he is great. Anh Do is very positive about Australian society and its lack of racism; despite having had a fairly awful experience doing stand up at an RSL club full of Vietnam war veterans. It’s nice to read about a time when we did take in a reasonable share of the world’s (or our region’s) refugees, and be thankful.
The Loudest Duck: Moving Beyond Diversity while Embracing Differences to Achieve Success at Work, by Laura Liswood, Four stars.
Laura Liswood gave us a two hour course and one hour presentation on diversity at work. She was excellent, and managed to give pretty much everyone I talked to who went something to think about; whether they had done a lot of thinking previously, or been fairly oblivious to the issue. The title comes from a Chinese proverb – “the loudest duck gets shot”, which is the polar opposite to the Anglo American proverb – “the squeaky wheel gets the oil”.
I got the book for free as part of the course. Sadly her other books aren’t available on kindle (at least here in Australia) otherwise I would be seeking them out.
An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies, by Tyler Cowan. Three and a half stars.
Tyler Cowan, is an economics professor at George Mason University, and runs a great blog called Marginal Revolution. He’s also a foodie, and this book is his crossover. In it, he expounds his economically driven ideas for how to get great food by following economic principles. It’s a good read, but fairly light. I’m in no way a food driven traveller (travelling with two primary school aged boys makes experimental eating a bit harder), but it is good to be reminded that providing you follow reasonably sensible hygiene, street food (if hot) is generally the best food around, and certainly by far the best for any given price.
Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us, by Maggie Koerth-Baker. Three and a half stars.
This book is about energy management and the future in the US. I reviewed it here. It is a good overview of energy policy and its complexity, but it struck me as a book that only those who were already interested would read, but that they would already know most of the content.
Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, by James Gleick. Two stars.
I shouldn’t really include this one, as I didn’t manage to finish it. Ultimately James Gleick has written a good biography, but I found that after Feynman hit about forty, I didn’t really want to spend any more time with him. I enjoyed reading about his brilliance; but while he had every reason to be arrogant about it, he didn’t seem the kind of person I’d like to have dinner with.
Kindle Singles are an Amazon exclusive publishing venture. Amazon has commissioned authors to write them (which means that there is some quality control) and they are very cheap – these ranging from 99 cents to $2.99. Worth checking out. Here are the non fiction ones I enjoyed this year.
Fatal Voyage: The Wrecking of the Costa Concordia (Kindle Single). Four stars.
A very quick piece of in-depth reportage, putting together all the information about what happened to the Costa Concordia, mostly during the 12 hours or so of collision and sinking. Very readable; my 10-year-old son (who is into disasters) read it at a sitting.
Gutenberg the Geek (Kindle Single), by Jeff Jarvis. Three and a half stars.
An analysis of the way in which publishing changed incredibly quickly once the printing press was commercialised (not just discovered). Drawing some reasonably sensible parallels with the internet revolution.
Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way (Kindle Single), by Jon Krakauer
Jon Krakauer is the author of Into thin Air, and Into the Wild; stories of adventurers and disaster. This book is a bit different, written in cold anger at how Greg Mortenson seems to have parleyed a great story (about improving the education of girls in Pakistan into a fabulous life on the speaker’s circuit, with not much going back into actual education.
I’m not sure if there is a theme for this year’s reading, but I’m pleased, looking back on it, that I enjoyed most of them, and didn’t waste too much time with duds.