Dec 08

My Favorite 8 Books of 2008

It’s been fun for me to look back over the lists of books I read/blog about each year — I always forget some that were really enjoyable and influential for me. Anyway, here’s a list of the best/most fun/most influential books for me this year. Your mileage may vary. 🙂

Most important books I read (and that I think everyone should read)

The Post-American World, by Fareed Zakaria, by Fareed Zakaria

The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Future of the Internet (and How to Stop It), by Jonathan Zittrain

The most influential in my own personal thinking

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami

The most fun to read

Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts

The Raw Shark Texts, by Stephen Hall

American Creation, by Joseph Ellis

The best written book

Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy

Dec 08

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

I really enjoyed this mystery — it’s a very traditional, straight-up locked room mystery, and very well-constructed. Set in modern Sweden, but with a historical crime. The first part of the book is a little slow; the last part is, too — but the middle is a fantastic page turner, and was great to read over vacation. I’m looking forward to his next book, The Girl who Played with Fire — it doesn’t come out until July here in the States, but goes on sale in the UK next week, so I’ll pick it up on my way through LHR in January.

The interesting backstory here is that Larsson submitted 3 manuscripts (the first three novels in the series) a few years back and then died a month or two later. So we’ve got 3 of his books, plus an unfinished manuscript.

Anyway, I liked this a bunch — reminded me how much fun a mystery/thriller can be.

Dec 08

Pigeons, by Andrew D. Blechman

This was an unexpectedly fun book — I noted (with some amusement) Johnathan‘s pigeon fascination during my visit to Toronto — he responded by sending me this monograph on pigeons. Books about narrow subcultures are among my favorites, and this was a great one. Fun to read, and lots about both the historical and current culture of pigeon-lovers that I had no idea at all about.

My favorite part, although by no means exactly the most animal-friendly, was the bit about the Parlor Rollers — pigeons who, when placed upon the ground, “…somersault backward like deranged, feathered gymnasts.” Not just a short way, either — but up to a couple of football fields long. Amazing. Results in paragraphs like this:

Paul’s a bit disappointed with his bird’s roll. It stops at 122 feet and 9 inches. “I just don’t think he had that many rolls in him today,” he confesses. Nonetheless, the high level of competition at the Grand Nationals invigorates Paul. “If I could have a competitive roll like this every week,” he says, “I’d be in heaven.”

And I guess I should note here that pigeons are among SPL’s favorite subject matter now, too. Consider a few of our faves:

Dec 08

Numerati, by Stephen Baker

Read through this very quickly this week — my father-in-law brought it with him for his visit. I liked it well enough — it’s a survey of all the ways that Internet people are watching and making sense of usage data, from shopping to voting to crime prevention, and some of the actual people who are doing the work. This book won’t be surprising to anyone who is involved in the Internet — it’s relatively surface level. Worth a skim for people in the business, probably worth reading the whole book for people who are not but are interested in what’s happening with their data.

Dec 08

The Man Who Loved China, by Simon Winchester

Winchester has written a number of masterful books — most notably (the oustanding) The Professor and the Madman and Krakatoa, as well as the more recent A Crack in the Edge of the World. Anything he writes, I’ll pick up — he’s just a very careful and thoughtful historian who’s able to contextualize a great number of contemporary world events and help you make sense of the real history.

Anyway, this is a bit of an unusual book — it chronicles the life of Joseph Needham, a Cambridge scientist who became enamored with China and it’s amazing history of scientific innovation (especially from antiquity to the 1500s or so). He was right to be fascinated, of course — the Chinese invented printing, gunpowder, chain link, the segmented arch bridge, and on and on. He learned about all this as a British diplomat during and after WWII. Then later in life, back at Cambridge, put together a colossus of a history called Science and Civilization in China. Weighing in at 7 gigantic volumes, it’s never been out of print since its introduction (of volume 1) in 1956.

The book also details a bunch of Needham’s adventurous (escaping parts of China just before the Japanese occupation forces closed the roads, for example), peculiar (a confirmed nudist, clearly polyamorous, etc), and and controversial (blacklisted as a communist by McCarthy, duped by Mao’s government into condemning the US for alleged (and apparently false) claims of using biological weapons during the Korean war) paths through life.

I didn’t love this book — it was a little too long for so narrow a look — but am glad that I read it. Would recommend his other books first. But I’ll pick up his next book, for sure, no matter what the topic is.