Although I can enter droughts that last for months at a time, I am, in general, a reader. At the end of 2006 I checked my PalmPilot’s list of books read in 2006 and it turned out there were 25. This is not a particularly impressive number, but it is clearly fodder for a blog post of some kind. I thought about writing a separate post for each, basically a book review a week or so — I could stretch the content until June that way.
Problem is, I don’t really care about stretching content, and that sounds like a lot of work. Besides, I suspect that some of those reviews would be pretty thin since the books either left no mark, or left a mark which has faded over the intervening months. So instead I’ve done the potentially more useful thing and just compiled them into a coarsely ranked list, because what would the internet be without lists?
Normally when I write lists of books (e.g. for Germanic tree worship gift-giving ceremonies) I include ISBNs and such, but since you clever people probably have your own preferences around hardcover vs. trade paperback, I will leave the sleuthing up to you.
The best reads of 2006.
The Game, by Neil Strauss (Non-fiction). This is easily my most recommended/lent-out book of the year. Chronicles two years spent as an embedded (ha! Get it?) reporter in the world of pick-up artists. Great narrative, ridiculous characters, celebrity cameos – would be over-the-top if it weren’t true. As it is, it is an absolute must for anyone with a smidgen of interest in people or sex or life.
Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief, Bill Mason (Non-fiction). Also highly recommended for its crazy stories of things that (notwithstanding embellishment, of course) actually happened. This book does a couple things that really elevate it to Laurel status. First, it delivers: you will read about several actual heists, and they are as exciting to read about as they should be. Heist movies always disappoint me a little, despite my total inability to resist them, because there’s only two or three actual “jobs” and that’s the best part of the damned movie; this book has several. Second, it has substance. One the things I remember most about this book is how sad some parts of it are; the guy had some real troubles. It has character in that way which helps carry you through any slow spots.
The Accidental Connoisseur, Lawrence Osbourne (Non-fiction). This is a book about wine, and if you think wine is a bourgeois affectation and if you think that is a bad thing then I guess you can skip it. But it is very well written, and full of interesting people, and in the process really quite educational as well. If you’re of the “It’s not that I hate wine, it’s just that I don’t know anything about it” school, this might be a good book to read since Osbourne himself approaches it very much as a curious novice.
A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn (Non-fiction). Does this book need an introduction? It was everything I thought it would be. A meticulously researched, profoundly in depth history of how the common man has fared throughout various periods of the last three hundred years (hint: mostly not well). It is almost the total opposite of most histories (particularly US histories) in that it cares very little about chronicling “typical history”: monumental military battles and the like. The things with which it does concern itself though, are gripping. Its descriptions, for instance, of how Columbus’ crew and the colonialists after them would test the sharpness of their swords by hacking off the arms of natives, are quite compelling. Absolutely canonical.
Oaxaca Journal, Oliver Sacks (Non-fiction). Yes, that Oliver Sacks, the neurologist guy who wrote The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. Only this book isn’t about neurology, it’s about ferns. Well, ferns and Mexico. It’s short, just his daily journal of a trip to Oaxaca (before their recent troubles) with a group of pteridology enthusiasts. It is wonderfully written, and off the beaten path of whatever you usually read. Between his neurology work, Uncle Tungsten and this, Sacks has cemented for me the fact that I will enjoy anything he writes.
Five Lessons, Ben Hogan (Non-fiction). This is a book about golf, so see the above disclaimers about wine and skip it if you feel you have to. It is incredibly short, but excellent. Not only do I feel it is a good way to learn to swing a golf club, but the illustrations alone are worth the price of admission. The illustrator, Anthony Ravielli, had a background in anatomical illustration, and his drawings here are constantly cited by critics as some of the best instructional drawings EVAR.
Fair to Middlin’
These books did their jobs well, but either weren’t Laurel material or got lost on the way to stardom.
Pro Digital Handbook, Michael Freeman (Non-fiction). A great book on digital photography fundamentals and digital post-processing. Nothing wrong with it, just a great reference that doesn’t particularly get my heart all aflutter.
Spam Kings, Brian McWilliams (Non-fiction). Chronicles the first 10 years of the spam racket, with a good amount of detail on some of the individual personalities. Would probably be better if I didn’t live through all of that as a geek, and hence see most of it as old news. Non-geek family members seem to have enjoyed it.
Silence on the Wire, Michal Zalewski (Non-fiction). This is a book about side channels, passive attacks, and information leakage in network security. It should be a Laurel (in fact, in writing this, I’ve moved it to that list and back. Twice.) but the Laurels are all pretty universal, and I can’t recommend this book to people without a reasonably deep background in networks and security. But for those people, it is absolutely required reading, and fun. I had to stop after every chapter and think, which is a good book for me.
Rule of Four, Ian Caldwell (Fiction). One of only a few books of fiction I read this year, it is everything the Da Vinci code should have been. Intelligent. Well-researched. With legitimate character development. And dialogue that doesn’t make you want to burn your eyes with lit cigarettes. It is not perfect, and slower than the Da Vinci code’s Jerry Bruckheimer approach to writing, but it is more rewarding.
Body Brokers, Annie Cheney (Non-fiction). Who doesn’t love a nice light read about the underground trade in human remains? This book left me wishing it was better – it’s a nice snack, and I think the information is well researched; I think the writing just didn’t add anything to what was already there.
The Inmates Are Running The Asylum, Alan Cooper (Non-fiction). People in usability all know this book, it makes the case for design being foremost in the software (well, really any product) development process. It also makes the case for personas. It’s fine. Not awe-inspiring, not bad. Read it if you are in the software industry and haven’t read it already, but don’t spend too much for it. Maybe my expectations were too high, it’s no “Design of Everyday Things” though.
The Box, Marc Levinson (Non-fiction). This book has a lot of things going for it. For one thing, I love these “take one thing and see the world through its eyes” books (others like this include: Cod, Salt, Spice, Oak, and Horse. Seriously, these are all titles of books I have read, or want to read.) For another thing, I love process, logistics, clever solutions to complex problems, small changes having large effects, etc. This is a book about the history of shipping containers. It is tailor-made for me. It gets lost a little in the second half talking about organized labour, but it’s understandable since the shipping profession was absolutely turned upside down. Would be a Laurel if I could convince myself it was more universal than I suspect it actually is.
The Algebraist, Iain M. Banks (Fiction). I kept hearing Banks’ name from people who ought to know what makes good science fiction, so I picked it up. It does a good job of creating an interesting world which is not obviously derivative of something that came before. It’s not a favourite, but I could lend it to someone without feeling guilty. Maybe for a long flight?
Access All Areas, Ninjalicious (Non-fiction). Ninjalicious died this year, far too young, but the book is a fitting tribute. It’s about urban exploration: how to get in, navigate, and get out of buildings for the sheer joy of exploration. Clearly based on a lot of real world experience, it is eminently practical and entertaining as well. It’s not brilliant writing, but it’s good, practical stuff that helps you see the joy in your surroundings that you might have overlooked.
Attack of the Bacon Robots, Jerry Holkins & Mike Krahulik (Fiction). The first two years of penny arcade. Good times. And my copy is signed! Not a Laurel because there’s no real reason to buy it when they’re giving it away right here.
The Long Tail, Chris Anderson (Non-fiction). Anyone likely to read the Long Tail has already heard of it but just for redundancy’s sake: it’s a book about the thing that happens when commerce becomes electronic. Namely, physical space constraints stop being a factor, which means whole business models (ref: Music, Movies, Food, Books) which are based around the concept of “Blockbuster Hits” are undergoing transformation. It is now (nearly) possible for amazon to stock every book ever. And it is easily possible for iTunes to sell every song ever, since their only inventory cost is disk space. Yes, the ones down at the end of the popularity curve (the long tail, as it were) are only selling 2 copies per year, but there are millions of those selling 2 copies per year each.
Cod, Mark Kurlansky (Non-fiction). Another of those “history of the world in one word” books, it’s a shining example of its genre. Absolutely more interesting than you think it is, reading this. Cod changed everything. I’m not even joking.
Rainbows End, Vernor Vinge (Fiction). Near-term (next 50 years) speculative fiction with a lot of really smart ideas wrapped into it. In a weird sort of way, it was this book that caused me to finally install GreaseMonkey. I will leave the connecting of that chain as an exercise for the reader.
The Starfish and the Spider, Ori Brafman, Rod Beckstrom (Non-fiction). A book about the power of distributed organizations (ref: open source, al Qaeda) and the important ways that they differ from centralized organizations. I was grumpy about their over-simplifications around open source, but Mike reminded me that the sections on how to attack and defend such organizations redeemed it.
Meh – Let-downs that nonetheless preserved some redeeming qualities
Emotional Design, Donald Norman (Non-fiction). This book makes some good points about the ways a product can appeal to people, and the fact that a functional, usable product that neglects the user’s emotional responses can still fail mightly (e.g. the mp3 players out there more functional and more usable than the iPod, but which lack an appealing design aesthetic and which, unsurprisingly, Apple totally destroys in the market.) Then he talks about robots for 100 pages. It’s good, probably even worth reading, but it’s not a worthy sequel to Design of Everyday Things.
The Devil’s Picnic, Taras Grescoe (Non-fiction). You’ll note that this category is composed of books that aren’t necessarily of poor quality (indeed they are often quite competently executed) but which failed to rise to my expectations, and this is one of them. The Devil’s Picnic is about forbidden foods: Scandanavian moonshine, French unpasteurized cheese, Spanish bull’s testicles. Good times. But I guess the problem with doing so much research into these substances is that you start to get really fed up with the whole nanny-state mentality that causes them to be banned in the first place. So what ought to be a great gustatory adventure instead becomes a combination of “Aren’t I a bad boy” self-congratulation, and “Don’t governments suck?” petulance. If you can hold your nose though, the material itself is interesting.
The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown (Fiction). It is what it is. It’s a quick read, it’s sort of fun. It is a better screenplay than a book though – books need to have a surpassing depth befitting their time investment. This had the depth of an action movie, and should have just been an action movie, skipping the book step in between. Then again, Dan Brown is richer than an astronaut and I am not.
A History of the World in 6 Glasses, Tom Standage (Non-fiction). Another good-but-disappointing read. I thought this was a great premise for a book, the history of the world vis a vis: Wine, Beer, Spirits, Coffee, Tea, and Coca-Cola. And it was exactly that. It is well researched. It is interesting material. The writing to me was just gluing the sentences together – I wasn’t drawn in by compelling narrative, I just enjoyed reading about stuff. It could have been greater than it was.
The suckiest bunch of sucks that ever sucked. Only one this year, as it turns out. There shouldn’t be any, I don’t seek out bad books, but sometimes they sneak in.
The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman (Non-fiction). For the number of times I saw this book referenced in the business world I was sure I was in for a treat of at least Tipping Point/Long Tail proportions. Instead I got… hmm. How to put it? Okay, so if someone wrote a book called “The World is a Highway” and when you read it, it’s a guy talking about how cars are going to change everything, how we’re all going to be able to go more places, and do business in new and interesting ways, and how a whole support infrastructure is going to build up around this crazy car idea, you would sort of furrow your brow and then check the copyright date, right? You’d be thinking “Hm. It’s not that he’s wrong or anything, it’s just that everyone sort of already knows what he’s talking about. And where has he been, that this passes for insight?” Right? His point in the book is that the combination of cheap telecommunications, worldwide high speed internet, and a globalized economy is going to change the way we do business, it’s going to change everything. And mostly I’m like “Yes. I’m sorry, is that all?” If he had written this book in 1992 it would have been really insightful thinking. Now it’s substantially identical to a book about how electricity is “gonna be big.” It makes me very worried for the various people who have been recommending it. None of whom, thankfully, are close friends of mine.
That’s it for 2006, folks. I’m currently reading “Small Giants: Companies that choose to be great instead of big” so you’ll have that (and more!) to look forward to a year from now.