In this deviation from the norm, I wanted to post some thoughts on all the books I read this year. I was encouraged by my fiancee to set a reading goal for myself this year, which led to me reading 21 books in total. I thoroughly enjoyed many of them, and briefly discuss each of them below.
- Norse Mythology - Neil Gaiman
- Good Omens - Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman
- The Book of Three - Lloyd Alexander
- The Passage - Justin Cronin
- Washington Black - Esi Edugyan
- The Imperial City and Lord of Souls - Greg Keyes
- The Time Traveler’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
- Remembrance of Earth’s Past Trilogy - Cixin Liu
- A Gentleman in Moscow - Amor Towles
- What Happened - Hillary Rodham Clinton
- 12 Rules for Life - Jordan Peterson
- Enlightenment Now - Steven Pinker
- Letters to a Young Contrarian - Christopher Hitchens
- Becoming - Michelle Obama
- The Person You Mean To Be - Dolly Chugh
- Thinking Fast and Slow - Daniel Kahneman
- The Myth of Sisyphus - Albert Camus
- Two Treatises of Government - John Locke
Norse Mythology - Neil Gaiman (2017)
The mythology of ancient civilizations has always fascinated me, particularly Greek, Norse, and Egyptian mythologies. Reading elaborate tales and seeing the rich history of scultupres, stories, and art dedicated to the gods and godesses of each civilization always instills a sense of wonder and imagination. Gaiman, too, loves these stories, and retells many classic stories of Norse mythology in this book with his own unique take.
His wittiness and playfulness shine through his versions of these stories, as well as his appreciation and love for the culture they’ve come from. If you are a fan of mythology or just want to enjoy getting lost in fun stories about ice giants and Loki’s pranks, I would highly recommend this book, or the audiobook that Gaiman himself narrates.
Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch - Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman (1990)
Following on the heels of Norse Mythology, I decided to read another fun story by Gaiman with co-author Pratchett. Agnes Nutter is a witch in the 17th century who prophecies about the end of the world, but ends up not seeing her own end and being burned at the stake. These prophecies live on and an angel and demon read them to try and avoid the apocalypse that they think will be brought on by, who else, and 11 year old British boy whose the son of an American diplomat.
After finding out they’ve got their eye on the wrong antichrist, the angel and demon find the real antichrist (another 11 year old British boy) who really just wants to play around and not get grounded by his parents. The antichrist ultimately decides not to bring about the apocalypse because he just wants to play around, and his (human) father puts an end to all the mischief.
It’s a hilarious tale with all sorts of crazy characters, brilliant satire, and excellent British humour, and is still a fun read almost 30 years after it was published.
The Book of Three - Lloyd Alexander (1964)
Alexander is a prolific children’s fantasy author, to say the least, and I remember really enjoying Time Cat and The Iron Ring as a child. I wanted to return to those simple and enjoyable fantasy books and, having never read The Chronicles of Prydain, picked up this first book in the series.
This is a enjoyable tale featuring the commoner-turned-hero, a notoriously evasive pig, a guide through the forbidden forest, a princess holed up in a castle, and the prince yearning for adventure. It features a number of the common fantasy tropes like the helpless princess, nobility of birth, and defeating the antagonist by speaking his true name, but I feel like these were not nearly as stereotypical at the time. It was a fun adventure and a good read for people looking to dip their toe in the water of fantasy literature, and I would highly recommend other books by Alexander, as well.
The Passage - Justin Cronin (2010)
This was a chilling post-apocalyptic book about the rise of vampire-like super-humans, and the first part of a trilogy that I haven’t read yet. It was an intricate story focusing on how families can come together to protect the ones they love and the sacrifices they have to make along the way. It was an exciting and horrific page-turner that reminded me a lot of Stephen King’s The Stand, which I also thoroughly enjoyed when I read it a couple years ago. I would highly recommend this book for people who enjoy horror or thillers, although I will probably not read the unabridged version of The Twelve when I get to finishing the series.
Washington Black - Esi Edugyan (2018)
This highly-celebrated book by Edugyan tells the story of Washington Black, a young slave boy in Barbados who attempts to escape the cruelty and abuse he suffers by using his artistic and scientific skills. This adventure traverses the globe and brings together very unique plot points, but ultimately I found this a book a bit meandering and boring. All the right elements were there to tell a powerful story about pursuing liberty and happiness, but I arrived at the end of the book with a bit of a feeling of “so what?”.
The Elder Scrolls Series - Greg Keyes (2009 - 2011)
I have long been a fan of the The Elder Scrolls series of games and I came across The Infernal City and Lord of Souls by Greg Keyes by chance. Keyes appears to be proficient at taking pre-existing fantasy series and extending their lore with new adventures, and he does that with these two books that are set 40 years after the Oblivion Crisis that occurs in the main story of the Oblivion game.
These two novels bring together known parts of the lore of Tamriel and combine it with a very unique plot involving the cooking of souls to please the daedra and overthrowing the Imperial City. While not the most compelling fantasy books of all time, they make an enjoyable short spin-off story that does a good job to integrate itself into the lore of the world around it.
The Time Traveler’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger (2003)
This was an incredible book that I didn’t expect to enjoy as much as I did. The story is all about the sense of fulfillment that love brings, as well as its hardships and tragedies, and does so in an extremely unique way.
I’ve found that stories that rely on time travel typically use it as a crutch or delve too much into the scientific aspects of time travel and lose sight of the plot. But this story is all about relationships and doesn’t just make use of time travel in the plot itself. Time travel is infused in the the structure of the novel, is an ever-present cloud hanging over Clare and Henry’s relationship, and influences all of the relationships of these characters in the novel. One of the many things I liked about this novel is that Henry’s time travelling abilities are explained just enough to justify them, but it’s not done in a way to distract from the plot. The story of how he discovers his abilities is also a tragic story that shapes his very character with the death of his mother, and directs his relationship with Clare as well.
Overall, this was a gripping and emotional story that was told in an excellent style that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Remembrance of Earth’s Past Trilogy - Cixin Liu (2008 - 2010; translated by Ken Liu)
As soon as I saw the title of the first book, The Three Body Problem, I knew this was going to be a clever book about space, civilization, and tackling nearly impossible problems. What I didn’t expect was the amount of creativity, imagination, and thought-provoking narrative throughout each book.
What initially starts as human interaction with a single alien species expands into humanity’s fight for survival in the dark forest of the universe. It broaches topics of authoritarianism, resilience, extra-terrestrial life, global cooperation, fortitude of the individual, family, the greater good, humanity’s future, and more, all within an extremely elaborate picture of the future that stretches over centuries. It’s a compelling read that is long at times, but I’m so appreciative of the creativity and ingenuity of Liu that those complaints are almost not worth mentioning.
A Gentleman in Moscow - Amor Towles (2016)
This story reads like a mix of classic Russian literature and modern western storytelling that focuses on a suave and rebellious man in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. It is playful and clever and shows how a person full of pride can thrive under an authoritarian regime. Oscar Wilde may have defined a gentleman to be a man who is only rude when he intends to be, and the protagonist, Alexander Rostov is exactly that man. Rostov’s wit, wealth, and influence may have gotten him into his imprisonment in the first place, but he uses these things and his ingenuity to get out. He transforms himself by using these characteristics to advance the lives of the people he cares about around him, which is nicely juxtaposed to the communist Soviet society surrounding him. An all-around pleasure to read.
What Happened - Hillary Rodham Clinton (2017)
This peek behind the curtains of the 2016 US election was something I was interested in reading for a while. Knowing that the story was being told by an unreliable narrator, I wanted to see what Clinton’s post-mortem analysis of her campaign was, how much she faulted herself, her campaign, and her oppponents’ tactics, and how that squared with the breakdown of the election many media outlets published in the months and years following.
In 2018, I read Donna Brazile’s Hacks, and was interested in how decisions by the US Democratic National Party, in my opinion, ran so contrary to their espoused stances on fair elections and democratic institutions. Clinton’s book was published prior to Brazile’s and they don’t discuss exactly the same material, but there was some overlap where the two contradict each other (if not in actual events, then in themes and interpretations of events).
Largely, I found that the points Clinton raised may have been true, but I didn’t get the sense that it told enough of the true things that affected the election. These arguments felt like they were crafted to minimize damage to the Democratic National Party and to place most of the blame on the dirty tactics of Trump and his supporters. Which, again, while they may be true, are explanations that felt like they didn’t have enough evidence to support them and left me still skeptical of the story this well-seasoned politician was trying to promote.
I also saw, however, glimpses of Clinton as a person, and the emotional and physical tolls that presidential campaigns put on candidates. I feel sorry for her and empathize with the difficulties this 70 year old woman had to endure over the course of her political life and multiple presidential campaigns. I wouldn’t wish those hardships on anyone and they served to reinforce my opinion on how people who are able to attain extreme political power are not the people we want wielding it. More discussion on that later.
12 Rules for Life - Jordan Peterson (2018)
Shortly after I started graduate school at the University of Toronto, the school erupted in furor over controversial statements made by Jordan Peterson, a professor at the university, about personal pronouns and Bill C-16. Since then, I’ve kept abreast of what Peterson is up to, what the resistance to him and his ideas have been, and attempting to understand precisely what arguments Peterson is making and what his motivations are.
12 Rules for Life appears to be a distillation of his personal philosphy into rules to live by to maintain order in one’s life. It is simplified in a way to be broadly applicable, engaging, and based on simple and compelling facts. He occasionally laments about neo-Marxist leftist ideology, the dangers it poses to societies, and how it is tied up in compelled speech he believes follows from Bill C-16. But these are minor, and largely unnecessary, points in the broader scope of this particular book. Most of his personal philosophy he writes about is related to personal embetterment and removing the beam from your own eye before telling your brother how to remove the speck from his. Criticism of these kinds of ideas seem to me to be in bad faith, even while there I think there are good faith arguments against Peterson’s interpretations of Bill C-16 and the dangers of extreme left-wing ideologies. Those aren’t mutually exclusive positions to hold, and I dislike the conflation of these different points of contention.
Peterson is a bit of a rambler and it’s tough to follow his tangents sometimes, but there are moments in this book where you can feel that he really hits his stride. To me, the spirit of the book climaxed in a series of questions you should ask yourself about how to do the most good for yourself and the people around you.
What shall I do tomorrow? The most good possible in the shortest period of time. What shall I do next year? Try to ensure that the good I do will be exceeded only by the good I do the year after that. What shall I do with my life? Aim for Paradise and concentrate on today. What shall I do with my parents? Act such that your actions justify the suffering they endured. What shall I do with the stranger? Invite him into my house and treat him like a brother, so that he may become one. What shall I do with a fallen soul? Offer a genuine and cautious hand, but do not join in it in the mire. What shall I do with a torn nation? Stitch it back together with careful words of truth. What shall I do when my enemy succeeds? Aim a little higher and be grateful for the lesson. What shall I do with the fact of aging? Replace the potential of my youth with the accomplishments of my maturity. What shall I do in the next dire moment? Focus my attention on the next right move. What shall I do to strengthen my spirit? Do not tell lies, or do what you despise.
Enlightenment Now - Steven Pinker (2018)
The Enlightenment was a transformative period in history for the entire world, and Pinker argues that the ideals that inspired this golden age are more relevant than ever, now that they are under attack by people across political spectra. This book was extremely well-written with brevity, cleverness, and a plethora of statements with convincing evidence to support them. I was impressed with how clearly and similarly Pinker described ideas about humanity, compassion, scientific rigour, open-mindedness, freedom, and equality that I hold dear. I have yet to find such a succinct description that so accurately mirrors many of the feelings I have towards these ideals. If there was ever a widely-accessible book that made the argument for re-affirming our committment to Enlightenment ideals, this was it, and the best one I’ve found so far.
Letters to a Young Contrarian - Christopher Hitchens (2001)
Hitchens may be long dead, but his rebellious attitude lives on in this short essay. Written in the style of letters to a protege, Letters to a Young Contrarian discusses how to remain steadfast in the face of adversity and how to not succumb to the conforming opinions of those around you. Hitchens’ rough humour and ego are on display here, and regardless of how you feel about him and his political and religious attitudes, there are useful lessons to be learned here about being working hard to be yourself in the best way you can.
Becoming - Michelle Obama (2018)
This was another highly-celebrated book from 2018 that I was interested in. I largely don’t read biographies, but I’m always interested in the stories of people standing just off to the side of the spotlight because they always have insight into things you wouldn’t think of. Obama has always had a good public image, but her life in the White House hasn’t been without hardship and controversy, and I wanted to see what insight an intelligent and motivated woman with a vastly different life from mine would be able to tell me. I was happy to find that the extremely positive reviews of her book weren’t overstated, and I have recommended this book to many, many people since reading it.
There were many interesting parts of this book, but there’s one particularly interesting takeaway I got from this book that I didn’t expect to come away with that I wanted to mention. I’m generally skeptical of consolidating political power. I often find that those who seek, and are able, to consolidate that power are precisely the people you don’t want having that kind of power. Moreover, that kind of power corrupts any innocent person who wields it and amplifies the negative consequences of any and all of their actions. But for the first time in a long time this book gave me a rebuttal to that argument. Obama provides examples of how the barriers she faced trying to help others on her own went away with well-supported, properly funded teams of highly motivated people around her. It didn’t magically make her problems vanish, but she was able to accomplish things that were orders of magnitude greater than she could ever do with a small group of people in a poorly-funded neighbourhood.
Consolidation of power is not evil, it is a means to an end. If the means are not extreme in nature and the ends are well-justified and noble, this consolidation can be a benevolent thing that helps millions of people. It’s not a necessary outcome, and I am still wary of people who sell this type of story; however, there is purpose in that kind of transformative work that can only be achieved through this type of consolidation. It made me question my opinion of decentralization of power largely being the better choice, and that impressed me, given that this autobiography was not about that at all.
Obama is a natural storyteller who conveys emotion and purpose, who is clever and funny, and whose optimism and perseverance shines through her work. I was extremely impressed with this recounting of her life so far, and I look forward to seeing what she and her husband do next.
The Person You Mean To Be - Dolly Chugh (2018)
I’ve been observing the social changes around the ideas of equity, diversity, and inclusion, and this book was recommended to me by a friend, so I wanted to read it. This book discusses how well-meaning individuals can hurt the people around them through their ignorance, and what individuals can do to try and live up to the pictures of themselves they have in their own head. While I don’t recall reading any particularly new ideas in this book that I haven’t read elsewhere, I appreciate Chugh’s devotion to not just signaling virtue or being a bleeding heart. Compassion isn’t just making yourself feel good about helping others or checking certain desired boxes. You have to work in good faith to advance and build up the people around you by listening to them, communicating with them, and not adding to the baggage they already carry around.
Thinking Fast and Slow - Daniel Kahneman (2011)
Nobel Prize-winning economist, Daniel Kahneman, discusses many of the ideas, experiments, and work that led to the formation of behavioural economics, and how people’s actions are driven by incentives, but not in the way that most economists thought. I’ve enjoyed listening to the Freakonomics podcast for a while, and the host, Stephen Dubner, has recommended this book many times. Overall, I enjoyed this book and learning about the science underlying this subfield of economics.
What I found surprising, though, is that it is riddled with multiple-testing fallacies. In various sections, Kahneman lists off a set of behaviours associated with changes to some economic factor or some experiment. Many of these behaviours have little to no relationship to each other, but he presents them as if they are all magically affected by the same underlying factor they’re studying. Psychology has suffered from these problems in their scientific literature, as a larger part of the field’s problems with reproducibility, and it worried me that the foundation for a subfield of economics that borrowed heavily from psychology borrowed its flaws, as well. This type of problem has plagued genomics for years, too, and is something computational biologists have to work very hard to counteract. It was surprising to see this fallacy presented so blatantly and without question.
I suspect that more modern behavioural economists are aware of these problems and have worked to fortify their scientific foundations. I know that I’m not knowledgeable enough in this field to properly critique it, but it did give me pause.
In either case, the book is short and entertaining, and is a good read for people interested in economics who may not know too much about it.
The Myth of Sisyphus - Albert Camus (1942; translated by Justin O’Brien)
This classic essay by Camus is almost universally cited in any discussion of absurdism, and I’m glad I finally read it this year. Camus’ writing style takes a bit of getting used to, but he discusses argues for the meaninglessness of life, against the cowardly act of suicide, and that to stay sane one must embrace the absurd whole-heartedly.
This is one of those pieces that you can tell you didn’t gleam everything from it on the first read and that you’ll need to re-read it many times. And since this was my first read, I’m sure I didn’t understand most of it. Maybe I’ll revisit this piece in a few years with a better understanding of it.
Two Treatises of Government - John Locke (1689)
I have long been intrigued by the rise, maintenance, and instability of democracies as a form of governance. As much of the western world follows this type of government, it made sense to go back to read some of the foundational ideas and essays that inspired things like the abolition of slavery and the American and French Revolutions.
Of the two treatises, I found the second much more intellectually stimulating, since the first was written as a rebuttal to Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha. But the refutation of the absolute and God-given dominion of kings over subjects, written in the first treatise, lays the groundwork for the state of nature, the equality of all people, and the abolition of slavery that he discusses in the second treatise.
I’m a sucker for clear, axiomatic arguments that have broad consequences, and Locke does this in the second treatise. Starting from the premise of the state of nature for all people, he derives theory of property, civil society, self-ownership, consent of the governed, the beginnings and ends of political societies, and how slavery cuts against the heart of these institutions.
It’s an impressive work that, like The Myth of Sisyphus, would require many read-throughs to fully comprehend the material written inside. It was fun to deconstruct the arguments presented and see how the logical conlusions flowing from the idea that “all are born free” provide a rigorous foundation for representative democracies and individual freedoms.
I enjoy writing out my thoughts, and although I mostly write about bioinformatics and math, I wanted to branch out and try something new. I’m happy to discuss any and all of the above books if anyone is interested.