2018: A Year in Books

You may have noticed that things have been pretty quiet around here these past few months. This is mostly because I made some pretty big changes which didn’t leave much time for blogging. As it stands, I’ve (obviously) put the World Systems project on hold for now, though I’d like to pick it back up again in 2019 if there’s time.

The added financial strain of having my first child together with dissatisfaction in my previous line of work and a general sense of wanting to pursue something new convinced me to apply to the Galvanize Data Science Immersive in Denver, CO. I got in, and proceeded to spend the next three months getting the absolute shit kicked out of me by the rigors of the program.

It was, without exception or caveat, the hardest and most humbling thing I’ve ever done. It was harder than working full time and doing the STEMpunk Project concurrently. It was harder than (figuratively) parachuting into Korea and learning Korean on my own, from scratch.

In the future I may write more about the experience, but for now just know that I definitely got my money’s worth in education and productive friendships with incredibly talented people, in addition to leads on more fruitful research trajectories than I could hope to get to in whatever span of years is left to me on Earth.

As I write this I’m sort of decompressing and getting ready to look for jobs in the new year, which struck me as a good time to write about the one that’s wrapping up; no doubt my millions of readers are curious as to what became of me ūüôā

Even with all of the above I managed to read 70 books, mostly in audiobook form while driving, exercising, changing diapers, or walking the dog. This is less than last year but, well, I think you can see why.

The year started with my reading the latter few titles in Frank Herbert’s Dune series, which I first picked up half my lifetime ago and which started a fateful obsession with the best form of literature: science fiction. In my view the first books are the strongest; while the six originals are all worth reading, by the time we get to God Emperor the main character is a nigh-immortal man-worm hybrid who can see into the future and who despotically rules the universe. Frankly, I find this a little hard to relate to, and there are long stretches of dialogue which struck me as vaguely like people trying to be deep on Twitter.

Don’t misunderstand me:¬†Dune¬†casts a long shadow and deserves its status as a classic in the genre which any good student of the form should read and read and read again.

Naturally with the World Systems project underway I read a lot of economics. Bob Murphy’s¬†Chaos Theory¬†was probably the most accessible, Nami Sanandaji’s¬†Debunking Utopia¬†was probably the most important for modern audiences, and¬†Mises’s¬†Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth was easily the deepest.¬†Dominick T. Armentano’s¬†Antitrust: The Case for Repeal,¬†however, deserves a mention as¬†a punchy little refutation of the mainstream view on monopolies and the government’s vital role in preventing them.

I made it through Francis Fukuyama’s¬†The Origins of Political Order and¬†Political Order and Political Decay,¬†which are excellently-researched volumes in the mold of Guns, Germs, and Steel. The basic thesis is that the rule of law, the state, and accountable government are what gave rise to the modern world, an important challenge to skeptics of any positive role for the State.

Neal Stephenson appeared twice: once along with Nicole Galland in the young-adultesque¬†D.O.D.O.¬†and once in¬†Seveneves. I recommend them both; the former was whimsical and the latter more serious, but it’s pretty hard to beat Stephenson for modern SF.

Peter Watts also appeared twice, in¬†Starfish and¬†Maelstrom, part of the¬†ő≤ehemoth¬†sequence, which I haven’t finished yet. This is standard Watts-ian fare, near-future SF which induces existential terror by plausibly illustrating a scenario in which all life is destroyed. Watts is always worth a read.

Because I have an interest in privately-funded space exploration I picked up two recent books on the topic, The Rocket Billionaires by Tim Fernholz and How to Make a Spaceship by Julian Guthrie. Both do a good job of giving us an insider perspective into the kind of borderline-insane magnitude of the ambitions and intellects of the people who are endeavoring to light up the void with the sparks of human civilization. 

I re-read the first two volumes of Vernor Vinge’s¬†Deepness¬†series (A Fire Upon the Deep, A Deepness in the Sky)¬†as well as the closing volume (The Children of the Sky).¬†The first and second are excellent, the third would be quite good as a standalone but doesn’t quite manage the same pace and sense of vastness as its predecessors.

Because of my genuine love for campy old-fashioned SF I always try to rotate in some titles from the Golden Age; this year it was Jack Vance’s¬†The Languages of Pao¬†(a riff on Sapir-Whorf at planetary scale) plus¬†The Naked Sun¬†and¬†The End of Eternity by Asimov. The latter is widely considered to be among the best of Asimov’s fiction books, and indeed it was good.

I continued my long dialogue with Objectivism, reading¬†Philosophy: Who Needs It and Voice of Reason, both by the first lady of reason herself. I also read a volume of essays on my favorite book, Atlas Shrugged, edited by Robert Mayhew. Though I’ve been a bit skeptical of the value of literary criticism in the past, I really got a lot out of this.

For good measure I tossed in Jennifer Burns’s¬†Goddess of the Market,¬†the other of the two major mainstream biographies of Ayn Rand (the other is Ayn Rand and the World She Made, which I think I got to last year), and¬†Unrugged Individualism by David Kelley, which addresses the common complaint that ethical egoism rules out being nice to people.

In the same vein I finally plunged into the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind, an Objectivist philosopher who also wrote one of the most towering fantasy series in the history of the genre. Along with The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan it basically defined the ultra-long-form fantasy epic.

I’ve given¬†SoT a couple of tries and didn’t much care for it, but I finally made it far enough to realize that it’s less a story about magic and more a story about re-discovering lost technology. Such a plot device can be pretty tricky to get right, and I don’t think Goodkind did a good job in the first few books of getting me to care about his characters because it seemed they were always being rescued by some heretofore unknown power just in the knick of time.

But he matured as a writer as the series progressed, and there are places where in-text discussion of prophecy v.s. free will, life as the standard of value, the role of art in cognition, and other philosophical subjects which are both genuinely interesting and germane to the plot.

During this undertaking I took a break for both Carl Sagan’s¬†Demon-Haunted World and Thomas Sowell’s¬†Black Rednecks and White Liberals. Sagan truly is a poet in a scientist’s body, and Sowell is more incisive than almost anyone I’ve ever read in history and economics. If these two are ever widely taught in high schools, the world will be a better place.

I also finally got around to Margot Adler’s¬†Drawing Down the Moon, an anthropological study of the rise of Neopaganism and Wicca in the United States. I’ve been meaning to give this a read since Eric Raymond brought it to my attention, and it was very good.

Happy reading!