As I do every year, this page looks back at my reading in 2016. I largely cover non fiction here, although I have one fiction recommendation at the end, from what was a wide range of books I enjoyed this year.
Ryan Avent is senior editor and economics columnist at The Economist. With this book, Avent is trying to answer the question of whether the modern world can manage technological changes every bit as disruptive as those that shook the socioeconomic landscape of the 19th century. Will we all retrain and have fulfilling working lives in the new economy? Or will all the work (even the thinking work), be done by robots with little or nothing for humans to do? In which case we will have to work out how to give our lives meaning in a lifetime of leisure.
Avent is quite gloomy about how capable the vast majority of humanity will be at educating ourselves to add value once computers are doing all the automatable work. I think I’m a bit more optimistic than he is.
Regardless, reading this over my Christmas holiday, a lifetime of leisure sounded pretty attractive.
Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
I’ve always loved Atul Gawande’s writing. He is a surgeon who writes on medicine for the New Yorker. This is, as always, a thoughtful, fascinating book at the intersection of medicine and people. As the title suggests, this particular intersection is about getting older and dying. So you have to be in the right frame of mind. If you are, though, it is thought-provoking and fascinating in equal measure. Gawande has spent time talking to people about ageing and death, and what is important to them.
That sounds gloomy, and parts of the book are gloomy. But it is also important and thought-provoking in a good way.
Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, by Steven Johnson
The thesis of this book is that most innovation in the world comes from play, rather than work. Johnson starts with music as one of the first sources of play that led to innovation – innovations that came from music can be traced all the way from bone flutes in prehistoric times through to the Jacquard loom and computers in the 20th century.
In some cases, I thought he was drawing a bit of a long bow in connection the innovation to the original play, but it is a strong argument for the value of play and entertainment in human life (and perhaps a counterpoint to Ryan Avent’s search for meaning in the post robotics world).
Fight like a Girl, by Clementine Ford
Ford is an Australian feminist writer, broadcaster and public speaker. This book is a memoir that describes her journey into feminism, and along the way, some of the most important feminist issues to her. I usually like about half her columns, so unsurprisingly, I liked about half the book, which was definitely worth it for me.
As a feminist, Ford is probably at the ranty end of the spectrum, which is probably necessary to be a public feminist, but not necessarily my favourite style. The best chapter in the book for me was the chapter about internet abuse. It constantly amazes me to read the ridiculous level of abuse and serious threats that are hurled at female and (especially) feminist writers on line. As Ford says, given how often she is accused of man hating, it is ironic to see how much woman hating actually exists in the world.
The Undoing Project, by Michael Lewis
I find it impossible to pick a favourite anything, but Michael Lewis is definitely one of my favourite authors. Whatever book he turns his hand to he seems to find something interesting to say. In this case, I was sceptical, as I felt the definitive way to read about Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky was to read Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow which is the definitive work on the research that doublehandedly changed the course of economics.
But in this case, Lewis’ book adds a huge amount. It is the story of Kahneman and Tversky, where they came from, and how their relationship worked. As Lewis himself describes it, it is the story of a love affair – an intellectual love affair that lasted fifteen years, but didn’t survive forever.
The Silk Roads: A new history of the world, by Peter Frankopan
Ever since reading Lost Enlightenment (and perhaps before), I’ve been fascinated by world history from different perspectives; particularly muslim. This book is a history of the world centred around the Silk Roads, taking each stage and looking at what happened in the world with the Silk Roads at the centre.
There are lots of fascinating insights in here; thinking about how much the discovery of the Americas was driven by the desire to remove the natural trade route monopolies that came with the silk road; thinking about the cold war from a silk road perspective; how much of it was driven by both sides desire for the oil that could be had along these trading routes. Ultimately, to me, some sections felt a bit like reaching – the history of the world is not always driven by the silk road. A great way to think about history, nonetheless.
Messy, by Tim Harford
Tim Harford is another one of my favourite authors; he always has an original take on his topic.
This book is much wider than his usual economics thinking, and looks at how important it is not to be neat, and how the freedom (or even the requirement) to be messy creates the most original ideas. My favourite anecdote in here among many is about MIT – the most creative part of MIT for many years was Building 20 – a squat ugly, temporary building with different disciplines jammed together because they didn’t fit anywhere else. And yet it spawned hacker culture, the first video game, Spacewar, Bose speakers, and many other inventions.
I’m probably at the neat end of the spectrum, so it is great to read a work praising the opposite. As Harford says, “messiness has too few defenders….there can sometimes be a certain magic in mess.”
I reviewed this book here.
This book is a thoughtful examination of the uses of Big Data, from someone who deeply understands how it really works, and what you can and can’t do with it. Despite the title, it doesn’t say that all uses of big data are bad. Instead, through many different examples, it explains what anyone who has ever built a model (should) know – models can easily (and unconsciously) replicate the biases of the real world and the model builder. And just because you have lots of data, that doesn’t mean they have predictive power.
This is a short book about the threat of antibiotics failing – a real ever-present threat that I would rather not think about. As well as the obvious (your body will need to fight off infections on its own), there are many other medical treatments, from hip replacements to chemotherapy, which rely on the availability of antibiotics to clear up the frequently resulting infections from the treatment.
A sobering read.
A short book that, with current oil prices, is a bit out of date, but still fascinating. Horwitz, who writes occasionally for the AFR, has written a great story about tracing the route of the proposed Keystone pipeline through the backblocks of the Canadian and US midwest.
Enjoyable, and sobering considering how difficult Horwitz found to get paid for writing it – you can read his writeup of that experience here
Another short non fiction book – the story of the submarine capture that was vital to the Bletchley Park code breakers – an actual working enigma machine.
This was enough of a page turner (albeit on a kindle) that boy my teenage boys loved it. It helps that they are into code breaking as well as warfare.
This author was suggested to me as a great writer on creating company cultures. That’s something I’m always interested in, especially as my team tries to move us towards a culture of providing better insights into our business, so I’ve been dipping into this book in between other more general non fiction reading.
Thought provoking for anyone in a position to influence a company’s culture (which isn’t just those people in leadership roles).
And finally a fiction recommendation, something I’ve been re-reading as my 15-year-old son discovers it for the first time.
The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
This is the first book of the Thursday Next series – very hard to describe, but fun to read and re-read for anyone who has spent time with english literature and remembers it (either enjoyably or as a forced march through high school).
Every time I re-read this series I find something new and enjoyable. Very meta, in the same way as Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. I imagine if you enjoy this blog, you will enjoy this book.