The year 2011 was a big book reading year for me. I took a year’s sabbatical, and had lots more time to read books than usual. I did use a lot of that time to read the books my children were reading, but I also read some great books about the world in general. This post is just about the non fiction books – there was too much fiction to summarise.
Destiny Disrupted, by Tamim Ansary. Four stars
This is a history of the world written with the Islamic world at the centre. Its subtitle is A History of the World through Islamic eyes. Ansary is a historian and textbook writer who grew up in Afghanistan, but now lives in the US. That gives him a very different perspective on the forces that shaped the world we now live in. So he has written a book about the Islamic part of the story of the world; a part that in most english summaries gets very short shrift. I found it fascinating, particularly the sections on the beginnings of Islam, which I have only ever learned about in bits and pieces, and also on the tragedies of the Mongols invasion in the 13th century, when Baghdad was destroyed and pretty much every resident (probably nearly a million people) was killed. The sections on the last two centuries or so weren’t as interesting to me – perhaps because there is more intersection between the two worlds, so the stories are better known.
The Gated City, by Ryan Avent, four stars
This Kindle single, by the Economist’s online economics editor is a well argued long form essay about why restricting density in cities restricts growth. Basically if there isn’t enough housing to go around in a city like San Francisco, it can’t be as productive as it could be with more. The people who would otherwise move there because of the much higher returns to IT and tech (among others) skills are priced out and go to other cities where they can afford to live, but are less productive.
Is that a fish in your ear? Translation and the meaning of everything, by David Bellos, four stars
This book, by a professional translator (French to English, mostly) is a very readable meander through translation. What is it? What isn’t it? Is it the same as decoding? What exactly is a mother tongue? Will there ever be computers who can translate? Why are some languages more translated than others? And why is it that the vast majority of translated literature in the world is translated FROM english? As a monolingual who would love to be multilingual, I love to live vicariously in the world of those who effortlessly switch between three or four languages.
A short history of nearly everything, by Bill Bryson, four stars
Bill Bryson, as usual, is a fabulously entertaining writer. This is a more serious subject for him than usual. It is the story of how we figured out the history of the world. A quick romp through 18th century geology, 16th century astronomy, and many other aspects of human’s attempts to explain the world around them is a good mix of fun and the educational. An excellent book to read in remote places, I only wish I’d been reading it in Iceland where there is geology everywhere you look.
The Wave, by Susan Casey, Four and a half stars
This is my kind of book, a well researched book on an obscure topic that turns out to be fascinating. Casey writes about waves after talking to everyone she can think of who studies them; surfers, cargo ship captains, climate change geophysicists, and even oceanographers. Her most colourful subjects are the surfers, and the climax of the book is when she herself goes out off the coast of Hawaii and surfs a forty foot wave, riding tandem on a jetski. For me, though, the most gripping chapter was the one about the Transkei, off South Africa, where cargo ships play chicken with one hundred and twenty foot waves, and lose surprisingly often.
She-Wolves: The Women who Ruled England before Elizabeth, by Helen Castor. Four stars
This book is the story of four women who you could argue ruled England before Elizabeth I. First was Matilda, granddaughter of William the Conqueror, who fought a twenty year civil war with her cousin Stephen for the throne, before giving up and ceding it to him on the condition that her son eventually became King. Second was Eleanor of Aquitaine (most famous of the three) who was the mother of Richard the Lionheart and ruled England in his stead while he was off at the Crusades. The third was Isabella of France, who married Edward II, and helped her son (Edward III) rebel against his father, and eventually depose him. Finally, Margaret of Anjou, the wife of Henry VI, who ran the Kingdom during Henry’s episodes of insanity during the Wars of the Roses. Some of the historical detail was too much for me, but the fascinating thing about this book was how uncertain the power was in those mediaeval times. From this distance, it always seems as if the King was in charge, but just being next in line of the succession was rarely enough.
Bossypants, by Tina Fey, Three and a half stars
Before reading this, I had only ever seen Tina Fey playing Sarah Palin, a masterful performance that made me want to know more. This book was good, but fairly light, an uncontroversial story about Fey’s rise from improv comedy in Chicago to Saturday Night Live, to producing and starring in her own highly successful show, 30 Rock. Fey doesn’t really open the door to the tough stuff. She seems to have made it by being nice, and incredibly good at what she does. While I’d love to believe that is possible, my cynicism started kicking in about the time she says, “the women in the cast [Of Saturday night live] took over the show in that decade, and I had the pleasure of being there to witness it.” That sentence reads as if she was an innocent bystander. I bet she was a huge part of the change, but the only confrontation she talks about was about having to explain a sketch involving sanitary maxipads to some clueless male comedy writers.
Delusions of Gender: How our minds, society and neurosexism create difference, by Cordelia Fine. Four and a half stars
I have wanted to read this book ever since it came out. And I continue to be mightily annoyed with the publishers for making it impossible for me, an Australian, to read an Australian author (Fine is currently Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne) on the kindle. But I picked it up in a San Francisco bookshop, and read it in a gulp on the flight home to Australia. One part is a very technical analysis of lots of different neuropsychological research, reviewing it, and skewering it for bias on the part of the researchers. The second half is a much more fun romp through the various popular science out there (eg Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus), following the sources, and pointing out just how long the bow is that is drawn from the very precise research experiment into generalisation about men and women. Of course, I liked the conclusion, which is that it is impossible to prove that differences between men and women are anything but socially generated, and that those differences reduce dramatically in societies which are more equal. I enjoyed reading the book, as well.
Adapt: Why Success always starts with Failure, by Tim Harford, Four stars
Tim Harford writes for the Financial Times, with a column about economics in daily life. This book moves further away from classical economics than his previous two (which were also excellent) into innovation. How does it work? What is the best environment for innovation? The title makes it clear. Innovation and success come from failure – taking risks and learning from what doesn’t work. Harford always writes well, but I find it sad that I don’t remember all that much of the book, six months later.
Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a world full of men, by Mara Hvistendahl, four stars
This book is an angry one, taking a tour of the many places in the world where there is a serious imbalance of boys compared with girls. It is a story that the Economist highlights every now and again, but doesn’t get all that much traction anywhere else in my current affairs reading. In a huge variety of places in the world (India, China, Vietnam, Albania and Azerbaijan), as the country gets richer, girls go missing. In some places there are as many as three boys for every two girls. This book both explores how this happens (and points the finger at western population control campaigners for encouraging sex specific abortions as well as all abortions) and recounts historic consequences of such huge imbalances as those children grow up. A bit of a depressing book.
Bird by Bird: Some instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott, Four stars
Anne Lamott is a US writer who has written pretty much everything. This is a memoir, mostly about her writing, but also about her life. The most interesting part for me (which is not new) is just how much rewriting and effort goes into a piece of writing that looks as if it has just been written off the top of your head. Writing is about craft, and this engaging memoir helps to get into someone’s head about just what it takes.
The Box: How the Shipping Container made the world smaller and the world economy bigger, by Marc Levinson. Four and a half stars
Marc Levinson has written a history of the shipping container. As he said in his preface, at first glance, it is not the most exciting of topics. But embodied in the humble shipping container is a history of globalisation, labour relations in many different countries (wharfies have always been at the forefront of unionisation) and a mechanism that has built global trade, just in time manufacturing, the rise of Asia (helped by the port of Singapore) and many other different changes in the world. I found it fascinating, and full of great little nuggets of detail that made the story real.
The Big Short, by Michael Lewis, Five stars
Michael Lewis is always worth reading when he has passion about his subject. This book is fascinating, as it returns to Lewis’ roots, the financial markets which were the subject of Liar’s Poker. Lewis tells the story of the people who profited from the Global Financial Crisis, by working out before everyone else what a mess the US (mostly) financial system was in, and selling it short. The most famous of his subjects is John Paulson, who made $4 billion for himself and $20 billion for himself by betting against subprime mortgages. It is a fascinating parallel story of the stupidity at the centre of the US bond market in the mid 2000s, and the psychology of the people who had the confidence and fortitude to back themselves to make enormous fortunes believing it was a house of cards.
Boomerang: The Meltdown Tour, by Michael Lewis. Four and a half stars
As always, Michael Lewis is entertaining here. He tours five different countries, Iceland, Greece, Ireland, Germany and the US, to find out what’s been happening in the global financial crisis, and what the locals think about it. It’s slighter than his book about the GFC (above) but a fun read, particularly when (in my case) I was following his tour to some degree by going to four of the five countries. The fascinating part for me is the local stories about what happened; there is always a terrible group (whether bankers, or another country) who is responsible for the meltdown. Lewis has mixed success in trying to link the local culture with the way in which the crisis manifested itself in that country; I think he draws the longest bow in Germany, where he tries to link Germans love of jokes about shit to their experience of a banking crisis. I wish I’d read the Iceland chapter before we got there, it would have been good to talk to people about his views.
1491: New revelations of the Americas before Columbus, by Charles Mann. Four and a half stars
This was a recommendation from our Inca Trail guide. Sadly not available on the Kindle, so I left it behind in Washington DC. Mann does a very high level survey of everything he can find about what North and South American were like before Columbus. His main conclusion is that there were many times more people than is generally assumed in popular history; and that as many as 95% of them were wiped out by European diseases, in many cases before the Europeans even met the locals. That meant that the local civilisations were already in huge crises by the time the Europeans got there, with the result that many histories underestimate the sophistication of the people before the Europeans arrived.
Drive: The Surprising Truth about what motivates us, by Daniel H Pink. Five stars
Daniel Pink has linked the science of motivation (lots of work by psychologists about how best to motivate people to achieve different things) with the way in which business people actually try and motivate people. The shocking thing is how badly they are linked. The way in which businesses motivate people, with specific monetary rewards related to outcomes, is generally counterproductive for any activity that involves creative thinking of any kind. It works well in situations where people have specific, well defined tasks to achieve. Those situations are a smaller and smaller part of modern business. A must read for anyone who manages people. I was doing a lot of thinking about education policy when I read this book. It suggests some very concrete reasons why motivating teachers with performance pay is likely to give them exactly the wrong incentives.
This time is Different: Eight centuries of financial folly, by Carmen M Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff
A very statistics heavy book. Reinhart and Rogoff are academics at Princeton. They have collected a huge set of data of all the banking crises they can find in the last eight centuries. They analyse the behaviour of governments, how hard it is for a government to get out of a problem if it is forced to default, what a country has to do to graduate from default crises, all sorts of different data. It is hard going, needing a fair bit of concentration, but I loved the nuggets of fact I found. Did you know, for example, that Newfoundland was once an independent country that Britain managed to force into Canada after it defaulted on its debt? That Greece spent most of the 19th century in default unable to borrow? That Spain, mostly because of the huge inflation coming from their access to Latin American gold and silver, defaulted six times between 1550 and 1650? For an Australian (Australian has never defaulted on international debt) it is an eye opener to realise just how normal international government default has been through world history.
The Great Derangement, by Matt Taibbi. Four stars
This book is a little old now, but still a great read. Subtitled A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics and Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire, it is a story of lunacy on the left and right of US Politics. Taibbi was national affairs correspondent for Rolling Stone and in trying to tell the story of US politics plumps for a simultaneous investigation of the extreme political movements on the left and the right and how very very similar they are; even agreeing on many of the same issues. On the right, was a church in Texas that was convinced that the final Armageddon battle was coming and they had to do as much as possible to follow the story of Revelations exactly. On the left was a set of conspiracy theorists who were convinced that 9/11 was an inside job by the Washington establishment to make it easier to invade Iraq as they had always wanted to. The book was pre Tea Party and Occupy Wall St, but in many ways both of those movements are the mainstreaming of the lunatic fringe covered by Taibbi.
There were eighteen non fiction books in that list. That’s only slightly above my average for a normal year, but I read a lot of fiction books – according to my kindle list, around 85 or so (which includes quite a lot of juvenile fiction, but some fairly substantial books as well).