Good books I read this year

I like “good books I read” as opposed to “books published in 2018,” because if they’re worth reading, they’re probably worth reading regardless of when they happened to be published.

* The Coddling of the American Mind; it’s about some of what’s wrong with American universities, and a lot of what’s wrong with modern parenting, and many other topics besides. A deeper read may reveal that it’s about how to live a good life, like so many books.

* Golden Hill: A Story of Old New York. A hilarious, witty, depressing, and amazing novel that is just the right length and astonishing in its language and plot. I didn’t see the final twist coming, although some friends claim they did. I like the idea of a public repository of “predictions” halfway through a book, as opposed to saying after finishing, “I knew what was going to happen.” Did you? Really?

* Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression. A book congruent with Coddling and, again, about the many bad decisions we’ve made as individuals and societies concerning meaning, connection, growth, and development. Many of us, likely including me, mis-prioritize our time and effort.

* Skin in the Game. Asymmetries in risk profiles affect so many domains; in addition, talk is cheap. Ignore most of what people say and pay attention to what people do. Many of our most fucked-up institutions (schools, hospitals/medical care) have too little or inadequate skin in the game.

* Junkyard Planet. A charming, unexpected book about where our things come from and where they go.

* The Case Against Education. Most of education is about signaling. Once you realize that, many puzzling aspects of the school situation become clearer. Why are so many schools crushingly mediocre, if not outright bad? Why is it not actually important that they get better? Why does every college major take four years? Why do we measure seat time, not learning? Why have so many reforms failed?

* Slutever, the book, a book that some of you will dislike, but also a book that more of you will like than will admit in public. Don’t worry, you can tell Amazon that you plan to read it—Amazon won’t tell. Personally, I like the slightly lurid, throwback-to-the-pulps cover, but if you don’t, there’s a Kindle version you can hide.

* Kingdom of the Wicked: Book One: Rules, which I didn’t technically read this year but I will include it, because you should read it.

* Artemis, about a plausible moon-colony scenario.

* Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue, about a story that is much more interesting than headlines may have led you to believe. It also humanizes many of the figures behind the headlines. “Reality has a lot of detail,” as many of us infovore-types can forget.

* The Seventh Function of Language, a novel meant most for those of you who have spent time in the academic loonybin. If you’re not familiar with the silliness of humanities academia, you likely won’t enjoy it as much. If you have, you’ll likely love it.

* The Black Prince, a novel where all of Iris Murdoch’s preoccupations come together successfully. Push through the first 75 pages. Many of her other novels feel tedious and indulgent to me, but not this one.

* The Lord of the Rings, a novel I re-read periodically and always discover something new.

* The State of Affairs, Esther Perel’s book about infidelity, relationships, and many other topics. This may also be a salient time of year to read the book. As far as I can tell, no one else is doing the kind of work she is doing on and in this topic.

What should I read in 2019? Or tomorrow?

Books versus the Internet

A friend and I were talking about how read fewer books and spend more time online than we used to—a conversation that I’m sure is common among readers of this blog. Before the Internet got good (or bad, depending on your perspective), if you wanted to read something, your only choice was the book or magazine or whatever in front of you. I used to read a lot of not-very-good books because I happened to have them lying around.

Now I don’t do that and I’m much more likely to give up on a book. That just happened to me: I read about 100 pages of Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game and gave up. Ponderous, pointless-seeming, and why bother with it when Twitter is right there? Or, better, yet, Instapaper in conjunction with a Kindle?

There’s some bad in this—I probably don’t finish some books that would turn out to be great—but some good in it, too. People are probably not reading some of the great books they ought to read. But we’re also probably not reading some of the crap that we’d otherwise read because we have it at hand.

To me, now, the biggest problem is finding books worth reading. And some of those appear via Twitter. Others appear in my mailbox, from writers or publishers. Some of them I forget to recommend in turn (I have a half-finished essay on Golden Hill sitting on my computer). The hard part for me is now searching, sorting, and discovering. That ought to give me a stronger impetus to write and finish more of the books that I’d like to read. I think of some books I like and admire (Joe College, Self-Made Man, Perfect Rigor, Love Me Back) that I bought after a single exposure and am so glad I did. How many good books are out there, but I haven’t had that single exposure to them?

Steve Levine’s “The Powerhouse” and the Chevy Volt

The Powerhouse: America, China, and the Great Battery War describes how we got to today’s electric cars, and it does so by following the vicissitudes of Argonne National Labs, which played a key role in battery development, as well as many of the scientists and players who help develop batteries. Much of the narrative structure comes from GM’s quest to build the Chevy Volt, a car that is amazing and widely underappreciated, because the conditions and assumptions that led to its development have changed.

In the late ’00s and early ’10s, almost no one foresaw the rise of fracking, which has put a lid on oil prices. If fracking hadn’t come along when it did, oil would probably be between $100 and $200 a barrel today, and GM wouldn’t be able to build enough Volts. GM’s management would look like geniuses. Instead, as has been widely reported, GM is closing a bunch of plants, likely including the one that makes Volts. People are short-sighted and, when gas prices fall, we buy bigger cars.

The Volt is neither as cheap as a conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) car nor as interesting as an electric. It appears that most people want a pure electric or a conventional ICE car, and hybrids like the Volt are stuck in between. Most people don’t give a damn about climate change or Saudi and Russian repression, at least as measured by their behaviors when it comes to buying cars (You might argue that this is bad—I would—but, at least in terms of mass behavior, it’s true). Today, articles like, “Why Oil Prices Took Such a Tumble, and What Comes Next” are common:

It was only at the start of October that analysts were wondering if oil would soon cost $100 a barrel. Then a trap door opened and oil prices have been in a rapid descent since, losing nearly a third of their value in about eight weeks.

The spread of electric vehicles is also going to cap oil price rises. As prices rise, more people will shift towards electrics. But people who rag on the Volt don’t understand why it was green-lit in the first place, and they should read The Powerhouse. Aside from being an account of the Volt, The Powerhouse is about the way science and engineering actually get done. Those fields are rarely about single individuals and often about groups, companies, universities, and the interactions among the individuals that compose the larger structures. To be sure, individuals are important (John Goodenough is a battery hero, and there are many others named in the book), but we rarely succeed alone.

The Powerhouse has flaws, as a book. Its timeline jumps around, from chapter to chapter, at times. Most of its chapters are 800 – 2,000 words, a sign that many originated as blog posts or news stories, and their integration isn’t ideal. Levine is a working journalist and so may have had less time than he would have liked to complete the book. The acknowledgements page starts, “When I began to consider a book on batteries, the reception from friends and advisers was all but unanimous: don’t do it.” I’m glad he wrote the book and will recommend it, despite its firm place in a particular time and its structural challenges. Levine created a coherent story out of many disparate pieces, and that alone is admirable.

“The Wheel of Time” as an adult

In middle school I read the first six or eight Robert Jordan Wheel of Time books; I’ve mentioned that before, but the other day I saw someone reading one of the books in a coffee shop and that inspired me to download some. From the opening pages they are badly written; we find of one character, “with his thick chest and broad face, he was a pillar of reality in that morning, like a stone in the middle of a drifting dream.” What is a “pillar of reality?” As opposed to a “pillar of fantasy?” Does reality typically have pillars? In dreams, stones can drift as much as they want. In isolation this kind of thing happens (not every sentence in a given book is to every person’s taste), but things like it recur again and again. Perhaps they were written too fast, or maybe the writer’s attention was elsewhere. But for very inexperienced readers, as I was, that doesn’t matter: everything is novel.

The novels are very Tolkien-esque, except worse. The novel concerns a quest to defeat “The Dark One,” but The Dark One seems like a bad deal. I mean, his nickname is the Lord of Lies. Yet various people in the Wheel of Time world are eager to sign up to serve him. Why would anyone make a deal with him? People try not to do business with people they don’t trust, and that just concerns money—not the soul itself. Truly evil people don’t announce they’re evil; they call themselves good. In Tolkien, Sauron is at least depicted as once having been fair, and being able to use his powers to daunt and seduce the men who haven’t been exposed to Elvish influence. Tolkien thought through a lot of subtle details that are easily missed in a first pass but picked up later on.

Perhaps the Dark One’s dealmaking skill is a metaphor for life under communist regimes, which are highly duplicitous and not very pleasant, but, if one’s government was part of the Soviet Union, that was part of the deal. Many people who ought to have known better were convinced socialism was a good idea. They may have sold their souls, in essence.

The Jordan view of sexuality is… curious. And very adolescent; as a work that might appeal to 12- or 13-year olds, it makes sense. As a work that appeals to adults, it does not. Many of the characters are very attractive and very attracted to one another, and yet none act on it, or only act on it after months or years of courtship that leads to marriage. This seems improbable. Most adults attempt to fulfill months- or years-long mutual attractions somewhat faster than that. The Wheel of Time‘s sexual world sounds a lot like middle school behavior but not much like adult behavior. A fantasy novel like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is much more reality-grounded in this domain, despite featuring far younger protagonists. As an adult I look at Jordan’s Wikipedia page and am unsurprised to find this: “He described himself as a ‘High Church’ Episcopalian and received communion more than once a week.”

Like a lot of thrillers, something happens in almost every chapter of every book (the early ones, anyway). A sudden attack. A reversal of fortune. The introduction of a new character. But, as with a lot of thrillers, the “something” often doesn’t make much sense. Why are the bad guys so ineffective? Why do they try the same sort of attacks, over and over again, which keep failing? Why do Dark friends not get a better name? Could they hire a branding consultant? Thrillers work if you don’t think too much about them—something I realized after reading Persuader, a novel that’s wildly plausible despite its absurdities. Sometimes I wonder if I could become a thriller writer through a deck of cards with plot points like “sudden betrayal,” “bad guy goes good,” “unexpected fight,” etc. on them.

And the attacks are mostly the same: the same Orc-like creatures suddenly appear, as if from nowhere, and execute the same attacks that fail in the same ways. They’re like video-game monsters. If the Dark One is so brilliant, perhaps he ought to learn new tactics? Or perhaps that’s the curse of a 14-novel series: there are only so many variations on a theme.

It feels like Jordan had a bunch of dice when he was writing. Roll a 2? New attack from Trollocs. Four? New magical items. Double sixes? Dark friends. Someone like Philip Pullman or Carlos Ruiz Zafon has a very different, more organic feel, as well as more bounded worlds that may ultimately be more satisfying worlds. The endless size of The Wheel of Time means flatter characters, more repetition, and the exploration of fewer ideas.

Even as a kid, I gave up on the series. But I wonder about what adults see in it. Many people are of course comforted by and susceptible to simple good-vs-evil stories. When one becomes popular, like The Wheel of Time, pointing to it as being popular because it’s a good-vs-evil story isn’t enough. Maybe it’s popular because it’s simple along so many dimensions. The sentences are simple. The motivations are simple. The plot is less simple on its surface but fairly simple beneath. The good guys win at the end (or appear to: so say Internet summarizers). The Wheel of Time world of motivation is fairly simple. In a complex world, simple has appeal.

The chief protagonist is named Rand al’Thor, and the description of him working magic is notable and concerns what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would call “Flow” or what might otherwise be called total concentration, which the channelers must use: “Tam had taught him the Void as an aid to archery, to be one with the bow, the arrow, the target. He made himself one with those imagined black wires.” One reading of Wheel might be about the value of total concentration, although that’s a funny lesson in books that don’t demand total concentration and if anything don’t reward it. But for the reader, especially today in an environment of digital distraction, admiring total concentration may be useful.

The Great Good Place — Roy Oldenburg

The Great Good Place is often dated but still interesting, and it’s highly congruent with Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression; Hari argues that one reason so many of us are anxious and depressed is that we’re spatially disconnected from other humans, and Oldenburg explains how that came to be—and how the physical space we inhabit affects us. Online life is a very poor substitute for in-person life, it seems, and articles like “Teenagers are growing more anxious and depressed” appear routinely. Friends who teach school say kids seem less able to handle their own lives and make independent decisions than the used to. While some of this may be “kids these days” grousing of the typical kind, at least some data indicates otherwise, and it may be that smartphones are bad for many reasons, like deleterious effects on relationships (an essay I wrote in 2012)—yet few of us will give them up or even significantly restrict usage. I have a smartphone too and annoy friends by being disconnected from it. Expected response times for texts seems overly low to me, but that seems to be the way the culture is moving. We’ve let phones replace places, and that’s not a good trade-off.

Our biggest barriers to good human space were and are legal and regulatory:

The preferred and ubiquitous mode of urban development is hostile to both walking and talking. In walking, people become part of their terrain; they become custodians of their neighborhoods. In talking, people get to know one another; they find and create their common interests and realize the collective abilities essential to community and democracy.

We take wealth and burn it through hellacious commutes: “The purchase of the even larger home on the even larger lot in the even more lifeless neighborhood is not so much a matter of joining community as retreating from it.” There are solutions, but they’re grasped tentatively and only with tremendous, pointless resistance. We can do better and choose not to.

Some challenges have gotten worse. Oldenburg anticipates the noise plague in today’s bars and restaurants:

Whatever interrupts conversation’s lively flow is ruinous to a third place, be it a bore, a horde of barbaric college students, or mechanical or electronic gadgetry. Most common among these is the noise that passes for music, though it must be understood that when conversation is to be savored, even Mozart is noise if played too loudly.

Vox says restaurant noise levels are climbing; excess noise seems to kill conviviality. Shouldn’t restaurants have figured this out? Or is Oldenburg, like me, just too far outside the mainstream for his view to matter? What should we infer from it is, rather than from what I want to be? I can’t say for sure, but I can say that I pick restaurants and bars based on noise, or the lack thereof.

To me, the most interesting chapter concerned German beer garden versus Irish taverns. In the late nineteenth century, there were two major models for what might now be called bars: German beer gardens that served low-alcohol beer (usually around 3%) and Irish taverns that served potent whiskey. The former catered to families and whole communities while the latter catered to men alone:

Yet it was the Irish model that eventually prevailed. America adapted itself only to the German national beverage; it kept the beer and dropped most of the amenities with which the Germans had surrounded it. The nation never seemed able to allow the concept of a good tavern, and people who cannot envisage good taverns are doomed to have lesser ones.

German beer gardens are probably the better, pro-social model, but they didn’t prevail, and I’m not entirely sure we know why, although Prohibition seems a major culprit.

Another section on the French cafe describes a largely solved problem: Starbucks, along with innumerable specialty coffee shops, solved it. What was a problem when The Great Good Place was published has become a business. Parking and zoning are still serious problems, but a dearth of coffee shops is not.

Third places are overly-idealized in this book (one could write a counter-book about why they’re bad), but it remains an interesting book with a useful set of concepts.

Giving and receiving books

Tyler Cowen writes, “Why you should hesitate to give books as gifts and instead just throw them out,” which is a fine post, but I’d note that many people are cost-constrained when it comes to books, and many used books now end up on Amazon, where they must be specifically sought out. And I love to give friends books (and receive books), but the following rules for giving books must be obeyed:

1. Zero expectation. The sender must not expect the receiver to read or even consider the book. Books should only be given, never returned, particularly in the age of Amazon. Amazon has made book scarcity a thing of the past. It is even possible to rapidly scan books, using the right equipment, which may be relatively inexpensive. The majority of books I give or send are probably never read, and that’s fine with me.

2. Despite “zero expectation,” the sender must think the book will interest the receiver or be at least as good as the median book the receiver might otherwise read.

3. This is my own idiosyncrasy, but I very rarely throw out books, though I will donate unwanted ones in batches. Someone with different inclinations and hourly rates might automate the process of selling older books on Amazon. The net take from selling a book for even $10 or $12 on Amazon is like $4 – $6—not worth it for me.

4. I like writing in books and like it when my friends do. Receiving a book my friend has annotated is like getting the pleasure of the book and the pleasure of conversation.

5. “Zero expectation” also means “zero expectation” in terms of time. I mail books in batches whenever there are enough and it’s convenient for me. It may be months after I finish a book, and that’s okay. I have a stack sitting around right now, waiting to go out.

6. I like it when publishers send me books! But they often send emails first asking if I’ll promise a review, etc. My stock reply is always the same: Send the book, but I promise nothing.

7. When I was younger I thought I’d be rich when I have the money to buy all the books I can read. Now I have to limit the number of physical books I have due to space and practicality constraints. Large numbers of physical books are not compatible with high levels of mobility. This is very annoying but also true. Bad city zoning makes this problem worse by artificially increasing the price per square foot most people pay for housing in a given locale. Would we have a better media if writers had more space for books and consequently read more?

“How good is the very best next book that you haven’t read but maybe are on the verge of picking up? So many choices in life hinge on that neglected variable.” I say my problem today is finding the best book, which I no longer do so well on my own; if the five best readers I know would send me more books, I would be very happy, even if only one works for me.

It’s striking for me how many people with nothing to say get on social media to say it, relative to simply reading more or learning more. We have all these communication media and too little to fill them with, in my view. It could be that I’m guilty of that right now.

A good rule is, “Would you buy this friend a beer or coffee?” If yes, why not a book? I’d like to see book-giving become more of a social norm, like getting a round of drinks.

Slutever — Karley Sciortino

This passage is representative of Slutever: Dispatches from a Sexually Autonomous Woman in a Post-Shame World:

My first attempt at nonmonogamy was while I was living in London, soon after my relationship with Sam ended. I was twenty-three, and fell really hard for this beardy Scottish musician. He lived in Glasgow but came to London a couple times a month with his band. I met him while high on ecstasy at a squat rave, obviously.

“Obviously;” where else does one meet a beardy Scottish musician? I say it’s representative because of the odd, jangly alliteration, “was while I was,” which sounds not quite right, especially due to the repeat of the word “was;” the unneeded comma in the second sentence; and obviously that “obviously” at the end. But I still laughed, and laughter is probably the best test for a book like this. It’s easy to condemn the frequent use of “honestly,” “whatever,” and “obviously,” but try not to do that. Yes, you will read “shout out to Hester Prynne, OG high priestess of slut-shaming.” The jokes redeem the book and the language is part of the joke. People in coffee shops looked at me not just because of the book’s eye-catching cover but because I was laughing.

You will find paragraphs with incongruous markers stacked up against each other:

When I arrived at Colette and Dan’s beautiful hilltop home on a Saturday morning in the spring of 2016, Dan answered the door wearing silk pajama pants. “Colette’s in the orgy room, meditating,” he said with a smile. They’d hired a rent-a-shaman to come up from Mexico that afternoon, to dose a handful of their friends with a psychoactive toad venom containing the powerful hallucinogen 5-MeO-DMT, known to induce divine revelation or, in Colette’s words, “ego death.” (Think Ayahuasca but without the puking.)

Who hasn’t rented a shaman from Mexico for the afternoon? But this kind of repeated incongruity is what makes the memoir-manifesto novel—more novel than many superficially high-status novels. And despite the admiration for hallucinogens and their uses, Sciortino also makes fun of Burning Man, which is, I hear, ground zero for doing such things, or doing such things in large groups of collaborators.

Sciortino writes, “Like, my goal isn’t to be good or normal or accepted. My goal is to be free. (And maybe also to troll society a bit in the process, for good measure).” Yet I wonder what freedom is; I used to think I knew and now I’m not so sure.

Slutever is not for all of you who may be reading this, but it is for some of you, and probably for more of you than you’d admit in a public setting.

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