Apr 25, 2018

Books read Q1 2018

Books I finished or dropped in the first quarter of 2018:

1. Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern by John Gray
Essay arguing that liberalism doesn't necessarily follow from modernity. I wasn't impressed, now fuzzy on why not.

2. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson (audiobook)
Apparently January is the time of year when I revisit masculine self-help books. This year it was Subtle Art, which is worth reading if you haven't already.

3. Artemis by Andy Weir (audiobook)
Second novel by the author of The Martian. Excellent world-building and a fun plot, though character motivations aren't always believable. Sorta what you'd expect from fiction written by an engineer.

4. Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble by Dan Lyons
50-something journalist gets laid off, takes job at hot Boston startup. Entertaining, probably only worth reading if you want to learn a lot of miscellany about the culture of a tech company's sales org. Also has some gems like this.

5. Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss and Tahl Raz (audiobook)
Negotiation manual by the lead negotiator of the FBI. Useful frameworks for thinking about communicating with people in general. Here's a standout tidbit.

6. [didn't finish] The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
Religious poem by a Lebanese poet. Interesting, though I got tired of the formulaic structure & gave up. I particularly liked the chapter on law:

Then a lawyer said, But what of our Laws, master?

And he answered:

You delight in laying down laws,
Yet you delight more in breaking them.
Like children playing by the ocean who build sand-towers with constancy and then destroy them with laughter.
But while you build your sand-towers the ocean brings more sand to the shore, And when you destroy them the ocean laughs with you.
Verily the ocean laughs always with the innocent.

But what of those to whom life is not an ocean, and man-made laws are not sand-towers,
But to whom life is a rock, and the law a chisel with which they would carve it in their own likeness?

What of the cripple who hates dancers?
What of the ox who loves his yoke and deems the elk and deer of the forest stray and vagrant things?
What of the old serpent who cannot shed his skin, and calls all others naked and shameless?
And of him who comes early to the wedding-feast, and when overfed and tired goes his way saying that all feasts are violation and all feasters lawbreakers?

What shall I say of these save that they too stand in the sunlight, but with their backs to the sun?
They see only their shadows, and their shadows are their laws. And what is the sun to them but a caster of shadows?

And what is it to acknowledge the laws but to stoop down and trace their shadows upon the earth?
But you who walk facing the sun, what images drawn on the earth can hold you?
You who travel with the wind, what weathervane shall direct your course?

What man’s law shall bind you if you break your yoke but upon no man’s prison door?
What laws shall you fear if you dance but stumble against no man’s iron chains?
And who is he that shall bring you to judgement if you tear off your garment yet leave it in no man’s path?

People of Orphalese, you can muffle the drum, and you can loosen the strings of the lyre, but who shall command the skylark not to sing?

7. Why Buddhism Is True by Robert Wright (audiobook)
The case for Buddhism from a skeptical humanist starting point. Pretty good, though I'm probably not the target audience. Recommended if you want to learn more about Buddhism but have a low tolerance for metaphysical claims and/or enigmatic statements.

8. Shoes Outside The Door by Michael Downing
History of the San Francisco Zen Center, using the 1983 scandal as an orienting event. The author wasn't very familiar with Buddhism going in, which leads to some pretty severe misunderstandings in his presentation – e.g. conflating "receiving Dharma transmission" with "becoming enlightened", which isn't accurate. Had a great anecdote about Jerry Brown.

9. Diary of a Superfluous Man by Ivan Turgenev (Patterson translation)
19th-century Russian novella about unrequited love. Good, sad.

10. Twelve Rules for Live by Jordan Peterson
A lot of ink has been spilled about Peterson lately; I won't add more here. The first comment on Slate Star Codex's Peterson comment highlights (a) post seems to fully explain what Peterson is up to.

11. How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer by Sarah Bakewell
Montaigne biography masquerading as a philosophical self-help book. A good introduction to Montaigne's thought, though had too many details about his life.

12. Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue by Ryan Holiday (audiobook)
Account of Thiel vs. Gawker, especially good because Holiday managed to get exceptional access with both Thiel & Nick Denton.

13. Island by Aldous Huxley
Huxley's utopian novel. Very good; strong counterpoint to Brave New World.

14. Street Zen by David Schneider
Biography of Issan Dorsey, a drag queen turned prostitute turned Zen monk. What a fascinating life.

15. [didn't finish] When Montezuma Met Cortés by Matthew Restall
Revisionist history of the Cortés:Montezuma meeting. Interesting stuff, but pushes its revisionist thesis too far – I dropped it about halfway through.

16. [didn't finish] Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzburg
Good introduction to lovingkindness meditation. I stopped about two-thirds of the way through, largely because I find it difficult to read extended treatments of simple ideas. Has some good metaphors, also I discovered that one of its epigraph quotes is incorrectly attributed to the Buddha.

17. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
Finally finished Cryptonomicon, over a year after starting. Definitely a slog in the middle, though by the end it becomes clear why Thiel made it required reading for early PayPal employees.

18. The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson
Book-length treatment of Hanson's X is not really about X idea. I'll have more to say about this soon.