This is the fourth year that I’ve kept a running list of every book that I’ve completed for the first time and then shared that list here as the first thing I post on either the last day of the old year or the first of the new.
You can see the 2016 list here, the 2015 list here, and the 2014 list here. As always I want to thank my friend David Daniel for the inspiration to do this.
January is a future-forward month for many folks in my line of work with CES beginning in a week (I’ll be leading VIP tours with Story-Tech once again) and myriad predictions about the year ahead by different sorts of thinkers across the spectrum, and that future orientation is one reason I like to start the year with look back at some of the places my mind has toured and when it toured them.
I read 50 books in 2017, which sounds like a lot but they weren’t all BIG books, and some of them were “chomp chomp, gulp” experiences. 20 were non-fiction books about history, science, business and where those all intersect; a bit less than half were science fiction and fantasy, and the remainder were crime fiction of one sort or another. It was a light year for literary fiction, but I have hopes for 2018.
I was surprised to see that the vast majority of the 50 were new books, published in either 2016 or 2017.
For those of you with short attention spans, the BEST book I read in 2017 was Joan C. Williams’ White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America (chunky comments and link below).
Here’s the efficient list:
1. Sawyer, Robert J. Humans (Neanderthal Parallax Vol 2).
2. Ariely, Dan. Payoff: the Hidden Logic that Shapes our Motivations.
3. Ito, Joi & Jeff Howe. Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future.
4. Dunstall, S.K., Confluence: a Linesman Novel.
5. Moon, Youngme. Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd.
6. Stone, Brad. The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World.
7. Dick, Philip K. Ubik.
8. Aaronovitch, Ben. The Hanging Tree: a Rivers of London Novel.
9. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Mira’s Last Dance (Penric & Desdemona).
10. Hochschild, Arlie Russell. Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.
11. Webb, Amy. The Signals are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe is Tomorrow’s Mainstream; Forecast and Take Action on Tomorrow’s Trends, Today.
12. Servon, Lisa. The Unbanking of America: How the New Middle Class Survives. Finished 4/23/17.
13. Scalzi, John. The Collapsing Empire.
14. Wu, Tim. The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads.
15. Allen, Jonathan and Amie Parnes. Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign.
16. Riordan, Rick. The Trials of Apollo: Book Two: The Dark Prophecy.
17. Liu, Cixin. The Three-Body Problem.
18. Williams, Joan C. White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America.
19. Lee, Yoon Ha. Ninefox Gambit.
20. Suarez, Daniel. Change Agent.
21. Rosenblum, Jeff with Jordan Berg. Friction: Passion Brands in the Age of Disruption.
22. Moon, Elizabeth. Cold Welcome (Vatta’s Peace)
23. Asimov, Isaac. Foundation.
24. Cooper, Susan. King of Shadows.
25. Winslow, Don. The Force.
26. Lee, Sharon and Steve Miller. The Gathering Edge: A New Liaden Universe Novel.
27. Connelly, Michael. The Late Show: Introducing Detective Renée Ballard.
28. Aaronovitch, Ben. The Furthest Station.
29. Chwe, Michael Suk-Young. Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination & Common Knowledge.
30. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric’s Fox (Penric & Desdemona).
31. Stephens-Davidowitz, Seth. Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell us About Who We Really Are.
32. Singer, P.W. and August Cole. Ghost Fleet: a Novel of the Next World War.
33. Doctorow, Cory. Walkaway: a Novel.
34. Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
35. Stephenson, Neal and Nicole Galland. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., a Novel.
36. Asaro, Catherine. The Bronze Skies (Skolian Empire Series Book 8).
37. Hoffman, Bob. Bad Men: How Advertising Went from a Minor Annoyance to a Major Menace.
38. Galloway, Scott. The Four: the Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google.
39. Leckie, Ann. Provenance.
40. Bujold, Lois McMaster. The Prisoner of Lemnos: a Penric and Desdemona Story.
41. Connelly, Michael. Two Kinds of Truth: a Bosch Novel.
42. Olson, Erika S. Zero-Sum Game: the Rise of the World’s Largest Derivatives Exchange.
43. Newitz, Annalee. Autonomous: a Novel. Finished November 25, 2017.
44. Eastland, Sam. Eye of the Red Tsar: a Novel of Suspense.
45. Alter, Adam. Irresistible: the rise of additive technology and the business of keeping us hooked.
46. Weir, Andy. Artemis: a Novel.
47. Trillin, Calvin. Alice, Let’s Eat: Further Adventures of a Happy Eater.
48. Eastland, Sam. Shadow Pass: a Novel of Suspense.
49. Eastland, Sam. Archive 17: a Novel of Suspense.
50. Mehta, Kumar. The Innovation Biome: a Sustained Business Environment Where Innovation Thrives.
For those of you who are ready to dig in, here’s the really-quite-a-bit-longer version:
Sawyer, Robert J. Humans (Neanderthal Parallax Vol 2) (Tor Books). Finished January 6.
The first of two sequels to Hominids, which I read late in 2016, this continued the story of universe-hopping Neanderthals who came from a parallel world where Neanderthals survived and homo sapiens died out. The conceit is sufficiently fascinating — and an exercise in appreciating the unpredictability and “it could have happened another way” quality of natural selection — that I finished the book, but not so terrific that I read the third installment.
2. Ariely, Dan. Payoff: the Hidden Logic that Shapes our Motivations (TED Books, Simon & Schuster). Finished January 12.
This agreeable small volume is a TED book — a collection of similarly agreeable small volumes that reminds me of the Quantum Books that the University of California Press tried a couple decades back with the idea that it might be a good thing to publish books that it would only take the average college-educated reader an evening to read.
Unlike his academic books, here Ariely is speaking to a mainstream audience about motivation, de-motivation, how different sorts of motivation interact, and how — despite an increasingly transactional, short-term mindset foisted upon us by the combo-platter of the gig economy and Wall Street’s quarterly earnings focus — the most motivational things in our lives have more to do with a longer time scales and social connection.
Reading Ariely’s book reminded me of other books that deal with similar issues: Michael J. Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets, Samuel Bowles’ The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute for Good Citizens (haven’t finished this one yet), and Adam Grant’s Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success.
3. Ito, Joi & Jeff Howe. Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future (Grand Central Publishing). Finished January 21.
I enjoyed this book, one of several “yikes! Things are changing fast and in multiple directions all at the same time!” books recently published, another being Thomas Friedman’s Thank You For Being Late: an Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Acceleration, which I still haven’t finished reading.
Rather than breaking new ground, Ito and Howe’s book usefully collects and organizes a group of common themes, or maybe memes, that have bubbled up over the last decade or so in books, TED talks and the like, and the authors deploy these themes in binary opposites: emergence over authority, pull over push, compasses over maps and the like. Some of these memes are so well worn that it’s hard to muster enthusiasm for them: businesses have to learn to fail fast, try new things, decentralize from a command a control model and embrace complexity. Yawn.
On the other hand, when the authors dig into actual stories some of the memes come alive, like in the “risk over safety chapter” when they describe how one company spent $3 million dollars on a feasibility study for an MIT Media Lab proposal that only would have cost $600,000. “Implementing risk over safety does not mean blinding yourself to risk. It simply means understanding that as the cost of innovation declines, the nature of risk changes” (page 117).
Likewise, in “systems over objects” the authors talk about “shifting the emphasis [at the Media Lab] from creating objects to building relationships” (225), using Google’s self-driving car initiative as an example. “In describing its self-driving car, Google has emphasized that the car itself is merely an object– the artificial intelligence that drives it is the system, and it must mesh seamlessly into the other systems it touches.” Perhaps the strongest chapter is “diversity over ability,” which relates a series of illuminating anecdotes about how “distance from the field” empowers outsiders to solve problems to which experts are blind because “the less exposed a given solver is to the discipline in which the problem resides, the more likely he or she is to solve it” (182).
The authors are genuinely optimistic about how we humans will prosper in an age of increasing technological change, which is refreshing. Sometimes that optimism blinds them to the dark sides of the trends they chart: for example, the authors celebrate crowdsourcing (Jeff Howe invented the term) and how EaaS (everything as a service) reduces startup costs for entrepreneurs, but they don’t recognize how this same trend leads to the “gig economy” where nobody has health benefits or a 401K.
A few miscellaneous observations: the book is mercifully short (less than 240 pages) with lots of white space; as a physical artifact it has a sensuous quality that is engaging. I don’t think I would have liked it nearly as much as an e-book; the authors end each chapter with a PS written by only one of them, usually with an interesting personal story.
4. Dunstall, S.K., Confluence: a Linesman Novel (Ace). Finished January 24.
Delightful and absorbing third installment in the Linesman series: this one was better put together and more focused than the first two, and I whizzed through it in a couple of days. One thing I liked about it was that it had fewer points of view than the others, just Linesman Ean Lambert and his former bodyguard Dominque Radko. Solid space opera.
5. Moon, Youngme. Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd (Crown Business). Finished February 2.
One index of how seriously I take a book is how many notes I take. I took a LOT with this book, which was recommended by my friend Carol Phillips, whose recommendations are always strong.
Moon shrewdly dissects the weirdness of competitors all having the same features on parallel products, which commodifies everything. The diagnosis part of the first half is worthwhile and stronger than the solutions of the second.
6. Stone, Brad. The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World (Little, Brown). Finished February 11.
An impressive insider’s tour of the first eight years of these companies, with clear “I’m finishing this just as 2016 ends” up-to-the-minute details. Like Stone’s last book on Amazon (The Everything Store, 2013), this is an enjoyable read, full of engaging stories about the compelling personalities behind the companies. It’s hard not to fall in love with your subject, and so I’m sympathetic to Stone’s positive bias towards Uber and Airbnb, although as a transportation researcher I’m much more skeptical of Uber’s future.
7. Dick, Philip K. Ubik (Mariner Books). Finished February 17.
Prescient 1969 science fiction novel from the author of the novels that became three classic movies: Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report. Ubik has a philosophical underpinning to a satire of the EaaS (Everything as a Service) transformation happening in our lives today. It’s also damned funny, particularly when the protagonist can’t get out of his apartment until he pays the door a five cent fee because he signed a “door as a service” contract.
8. Aaronovitch, Ben. The Hanging Tree: a Rivers of London Novel (Daw, Penguin Group). Finished February 24.
I enjoy this series — a kind of English X-Files where a special team of detectives investigate crimes involving the supernatural — light fare though it is. The author started in British TV, which explains why reading this book feels like watching a season of a low budget but well constructed series. The author counts on the reader having read — and remembering — all the previous books, and this means that character development… Isn’t. A fun romp. Deserves to be a series on SyFy or the like.
9. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Mira’s Last Dance (Penric & Desdemona) (Subterranean Press and self-published via Amazon and iBooks). Finished March 3.
Bujold is my favorite living science fiction and fantasy writer, so any time she releases something new it provokes my immediate purchase and abrupt disappearance from family life. The Penric and Desdemona series of novellas about a wizard and his pet demon are short enough that my wife and kids don’t miss me for long. (More on the business model for this and others below at #28.)
10. Hochschild, Arlie Russell. Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (The New Press). Finished April 2.
Brilliant psychological profile of Tea Party Republicans and why to liberal eyes they so consistently vote against their own interests. This book is like a scholarly (although engaging) companion to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (see last year’s list).
My one gripe with the book is how little Hochschild engages with technology and media proliferation throughout. She mentions people’s Twitter feeds and Facebook communities from time to time, but doesn’t have a pervasive take on how, for example, alt-right websites and media to the right of Fox News has normalized Fox, and how that has impacted the information that her Tea Party subjects internalize.
11. Webb, Amy. The Signals are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe is Tomorrow’s Mainstream; Forecast and Take Action on Tomorrow’s Trends, Today (Public Affairs). Finished April 3.
Interesting book with a bunch of razor sharp insights — in particular on why Google is interested in Self-Driving Cars and what a potential success scenario for Magic Leap might mean for the world — and some very good questions to bear in mind as one is thinking about what’s coming. I like Webb’s notion of a “fringe map” with nodes and connections, which she develops as she’s thinking through new technologies and behaviors and how they will impact other things.
As a futurist, this was a useful book for me to have read.
On the other hand, Webb’s methodology (six vectors one way, ten trends another) is so complex as to be unusable, which makes me think that in part she has created that deliberately in order to have the book act as an advertisement for her company without giving away the store.
12. Servon, Lisa. The Unbanking of America: How the New Middle Class Survives (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Finished April 23.
This was a close runner up to the Williams’ book for best book of my year. Sermon spent months as an undercover academic working at check cashing services, payday lenders and the like to get a up-close-and-personal feel for why millions of Americans are unbanked. The short answer is that they cannot afford the banks predatory fees, about which I have more to say here. Servon’s combination of Geertzian thick description and shrewd analysis makes this a compelling read as well as a convincing piece of analysis.
13. Scalzi, John. The Collapsing Empire (Tor Science Fiction). Finished April 30, having started it the previous afternoon.
There is no other SF writer working today who so powerfully channels and updates the style of Robert Heinlein. (This is a high compliment.) Scalzi is a writing machine, and this new series explores what would happen to a galaxy-wide empire if the wormholes that link it together began to evaporate.
14. Wu, Tim. The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (Vintage). Finished May 7.
Wu’s description of how television’s entrance into the home changed how much advertising had access to the private life of citizens was insightful. It was also salutary to have somebody point out that we’re all subservient to an almost-contractual exchange of attention for value that most of us never consciously agreed to and of which the terms vary wildly and beyond our control or even awareness.
On the flawed side, there was a lot of sturm und drang about how bad the attention merchants have been for us, but it’s like the old saw about the weather: people complain but nobody does anything about it. At points in Wu’s book it sounded like he was going to articulate a plan for how to take back some of the attention that gets frittered away by media and technology — like what Levitin talks about in The Organized Mind although from more of a law and policy perspective — but Wu never gets there.
15. Allen, Jonathan and Amie Parnes. Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign (Crown). Finished May 18.
Well-written, compelling, incredibly depressing. As I read this book my most-frequent reaction was to mutter, “no… no… no…” at how many avoidable mistakes the Clinton campaign made. I guess I was feeling particularly masochistic in May.
16. Riordan, Rick. The Trials of Apollo: Book Two: The Dark Prophecy (Disney-Hyperion). Finished May 26.
The latest installment in the Percy Jackson universe of Greek demigods. Both of my kids were devoted to this series at one point, although now the teenager has aged out of it. I was the first to read the first five-book series when I was on a LOT of planes for business and needed something light. Books 1-5 were terrific. The many sequels have been less great, although still quite good. The 12-year-old likes me to read this series with him, so I do.
Like the first book in this series, the story is action-packed and well constructed. I like that in this series Riordan goes back to using single first-person narrator, in this case the defrocked Apollo who has been turned into a mortal teenager with only limited access to his godly powers. It is a somewhat-entertaining departure that Apollo is conceited and self-centered as a narrator, which seems appropriate for the Greek gods, even if it gets tired pretty quickly. I’ll read the next one, too.
17. Liu, Cixin. The Three-Body Problem (Tor Books). Finished May 27.
Renny Gleeson recommended this book, and he doesn’t recommend things lightly. I got it at the library and was finally about to start reading it when my renewals ran out and it got recalled, so I bought it and dug back in.
It’s a slow, long, challenging story, so I wound up taking breaks from it… and also getting seduced by the easy-like-Sunday-morning quality of the Scalzi novel and my desire to keep up with my boy by reading the Riordan.
Liu’s book is difficult for a lot of reasons, one of which is that it’s translated from the Chinese and therefore requires more effort than a book by a Westerner. Beyond that, one of the key premises — that you need to be trained to understand an alien culture by experiencing that culture in a VR video game that takes a long, long time to master — is also a difficult cultural translation, even though this one is fictional.
Not a world-shattering experience, but it is quite good.
18. Williams, Joan C. White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America (Harvard Business Review Press). Finished June 2.
Best book of the year.
If a webcam had been trained at my face while I was reading this book my expression would probably have been one of slowly dawning horror. If a comic-strip thought balloon had been connected to my head, it might have read, “Oh dear. I guess I really do live in even more of a bubble than I thought I did.”
Of the four “How did Trump become president?” books I’ve read, this is the most illuminating.
Emerging from a celebrated HBR article written in the feverish November days after the election and its shocking outcome, Williams has expanded her central argument into a compelling, direct, bracing and impressively short book. At 131 pages of text with another 50 pages of apparatus (notes, index), I read this book swiftly and with focused attention.
The reason White Working Class is so bracing is that while other books on the topic focus on the failures of working class conservatives to understand how badly the Republicans serve their economic interests (JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in The Own Land) or on how it was Hillary Clinton’s fault for running a poor campaign (Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’ Shattered), Williams instead focuses squarely on how badly progressives understand the values and priorities of the white working class.
In other words, Williams argues, the problem is us.
Trump’s rise isn’t the fault of the Tea Party Republicans or duped Rust Belt workers, it’s our fault, the fault of Democrats who not only have neglected to make a case that the Democratic Party understands the desires and needs of the white working class in favor of other groups but also have condescended to the white working class for generations.
It is neither trivial nor an accident, Williams argues, that moronic Homer Simpson is the most salient media representation of a white working class father who supports his family while his wife Marge stays at home to care for the house and children. Williams also mentions Archie Bunker and Al Bundy, and I’d toss Peter Griffin into the mix as well. White working class fathers visible in the media (which is not a common sight in any event) are obese, crude and stupid.
Folks on the left may fume and roll their eyes at Fox News and how it panders to the basest instincts of its viewers, but, Williams argues, the reason that Fox and its ilk have been able to convince the white working class that the mainstream media is the liberal media is that the mainstream media has abandoned the white working class by trivializing its values and priorities.
A don’t-miss read.
19. Lee, Yoon Ha. Ninefox Gambit (Solaris). Finished June 10.
Interesting space opera with “calendrical rot” as a central conceit where different technologies are enable by different notions of time and moving outside of the dominant culture’s calendar is heresy. It’s a speedy, good story with a strong female protagonist in Cheris. My one issue with the book concerns its world building: a lot of things are poorly explained or not explained at all, which can be a bit confusing.
20. Suarez, Daniel. Change Agent (Dutton). Finished June 15.
Fascinating 2045-set sci fi thriller where genetic manipulation has become the dominant industry on the planet, with cars grown out of synthetic shrimp, “degans” eat “deathless meat” that is vat grown, and designer babies are illegal, but only sometimes. I inhaled this book starting on a plane-ride home on a Tuesday night and then finished it on Thursday night. Recommended by Susan MacDermid.
21. Rosenblum, Jeff with Jordan Berg. Friction: Passion Brands in the Age of Disruption (powerHouse Books). Finished June 17, 2017.
The Drum ran my review of this terrific book. Here are a few sample paragraphs:
Rosenblum’s thesis is that friction gets in the way of business success in a fractal manner: the always-self-replicating pattern ranges from how a product category removes friction from culture at the broadest level, down to how a specific brand of a product removes friction from the lives of customers, down to how removing internal friction from the business creating the product aligns the team, and then down to how removing friction from an individual’s life and work habits can bring more productivity, creativity and satisfaction.
This complex but enabling take on friction is what distinguishes Rosenblum’s take from the commonplace business cliche about friction (i.e., it’s bad).
Lest you think the book hovers at a platitudinous level emitting self-help-style bromides, Rosenblum connects his argument to case studies linking the elimination of friction to business success, economic success, rather than marketing vanity metrics.
Read the whole review of the book on The Drum.
22. Moon, Elizabeth Cold Welcome (Vatta’s Peace) (Del Rey). Finished June 21.
Terrific military SF coming at least a decade after the last book in this series. Since I hadn’t reread the previous volumes some of the references and relationships didn’t resonate, but this is a minor quibble. A compelling read that I sailed through in a handful of days.
23. Asimov, Isaac. Foundation (Bantam Spectra Books). Finished June 24.
Classic SF. I’d been thinking of Asimow’s notion of psychohistory in the context of AI, which prompted me to read the first volume of the trilogy. It’s an interesting, cerebral, canny and thoughtful take on how a civilization might survive a dark age.
24. Cooper, Susan. King of Shadows (Margaret K. McElderry Books;). Finished July 4.
Delightful YA fiction recommended by an English teacher and fellow Shakespearean at my son’s grade school. Nat Field, who shares a name and penchant for acting with a famous player from Shakespeare’s London, mysteriously switches places with his Renaissance namesake and finds himself acting side-by-side with Will Shakespeare himself in 1599. A richly imagined piece of historical fiction– and one that name checks my friend Andy Gurr along the way!
25. Winslow, Don. The Force (William Morrow). Finished July 22.
I bought this book because of an enthusiastic blurb by Stephen King and because I saw it on the table at Costco. This was an uncharacteristic move since I don’t read Stephen King all that often, but I enjoyed the book. There are skaz-like qualities to the third-person narration in a grim story about corrupt New York cops. “The skaz” is a lit-crit term that describes a narration that is so completely in a character’s voice and subjectivity that it is startling and original. The most famous example is Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Imagine the Starz show Power from a corrupt cop’s point of view and then transform it into a novel, then you’ve got a good sense of The Force.
26. Lee, Sharon and Steve Miller. The Gathering Edge: A New Liaden Universe Novel (Baen). Finished July 30.
The latest in this sprawling series: a good “pop it into you mouth, chew and swallow” read. I will always have fond feelings for the Liaden universe because I read the first several with my baby daughter asleep with her head on my right shoulder while rocking gently in the glider in her sunny room in our old house in Encino.
Unlike Bujold’s Vorkosigan books — where it is conceivable to jump into the series at any point because each novel is a self-contained unit — starting with the Liaden series at “The Gathering Edge” would be incomprehensible. I’ve read them all, and even I have trouble keeping track of the characters and the history, not in the least because the story has split into different concurrent narratives as well as leapt back and forth in time.
The current book is an entry in the story of Theo Waitley, the half-Liaden, half-Terran captain of a sentient ship called Bechimo. It’s a picaresque series of episodes that aren’t a single tale and don’t really add up to anything as a single book, but the episodes are interesting. The story starts with two Ytrang explorers popping into the universe from a previous, now-destroyed universe… a bit of back story that hasn’t ever really been developed in the series until now, unless it was in one of the side-stories that the authors self-publish. (It feels somewhat like Heinlein and Asimov each trying to reconcile all their different stories into one universe or multiverse late in their lives.)
27. Connelly, Michael. The Late Show: Introducing Detective Renée Ballard (Little, Brown). Finished July 31.
I inhaled this book in a single, albeit long, day, starting on a plane ride from Portland to New York and finishing in bed that night. Ballard is a terrific successor to Harry Bosch (whose adventures are not complete but seem to be winding down): she’s a smart, capable, passionate and reckless police detective. The story is a classic Connelly police procedural with a minor if very surprising twist at the end, and I wanted more Ballard the moment I was done. Ballard is pretty butch — female but not feminine — and I’ll be curious in future novels if Connelly explores her femininity at all.
28. Aaronovitch, Ben. The Furthest Station (Subterranean Press and self-published via Amazon and iBooks). Finished August 5.
Enjoyable novella in the “Rivers of London” aka “Peter Grant” series (see #8, above) that occupies my time whenever they come out. As with #8, the author presumes that only fans will read this book as he uses characters from previous entries with little or no explanation. Not a good jumping off point for new readers.
Two interesting things about The Furthest Station.
#1: Unlike some of the full-length books where Big Movie-Like Action Sequences tend to take up the last quarter, this one is a solid police procedural… an episode of Law & Magical Order. I think the author realized what he had midstream and decided to release it as a novella, which leads me to…
#2: The business model. Aaronovitch released this as an expensive direct-to-fans hardback created by Subterranean Press some months ago, only allowing a cheaper digital version to come out over the last few weeks. His usual publisher, DAW, didn’t handle this one– either the hardback or the digital. The cover illustrator for the DAW-published volumes also drew the cover for this one (or another artist did a good facsimile). So the series exists outside a single publisher (there are also comic books, which I haven’t investigated.). This is also what Lois McMaster Bujold is doing with her Penric novellas, and it shows that there is market appetite for what Kevin Kelly once called “1000 True Fans” supporting an artist and making smaller endeavors profitable, although I suspect that these smaller projects are only possible when built on the platform of bigger, mass market releases.
29. Chwe, Michael Suk-Young. Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination & Common Knowledge (Princeton University Press). Finished August 6.
I read the 2001 edition and then got the 2013 afterword via the USC library. Fascinating book that I’ll continue to think about and may need to buy. I first learned of this book in a Eugene Wei blog post, and subsequently quoted it in a column at the Center site.
Chwe’s central idea is that we need to share metaknowledge — we need not only to know something but also to know that other people know it, and that other people know we know it, and that they know that we know that they know it in infinite regression — in order to coordinate action. It’s helpful in understanding how Trump mobilized a base with blatant falsehoods that nonetheless became common “knowledge,” and it has helped me think through the sinister implications of the decline of shared reality because of new display technologies.
Most importantly, Chwe’s version of common knowledge helps to explain the timing of the #MeToo movement.
30. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric’s Fox (Penric & Desdemona) (Subterranean Press and self-published via Amazon and iBooks). Finished August 9.
See #9. Another delightful novella set in Bujold’s “Five Gods” universe.
31. Stephens-Davidowitz, Seth. Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell us About Who We Really Are (Dey Street Books). Finished August 14.
Really, really interesting. Stephens-Davidowitz is a former Google data scientist and researcher who explores what our search histories say about us in case study after fascinating case study, divvied up across different fields, demographics and gender. The book is well worth reading, although I sometimes found the author overconfident about his conclusions. There’s a difference (that the author doesn’t seem to recognize) between the things that we search for and the things that we want, between what we believe about ourselves and the beliefs that come into focus based on what we do online. Those things all overlap, but they aren’t identical.
32. Singer, P.W. and August Cole. Ghost Fleet: a Novel of the Next World War (Eamon Dolan/Mariner Books). Finished August 24.
Fascinating near-future military techno-thriller about a Chinese attack on the USA in order to secure massive oil reserve under the Pacific Ocean. The authors combine canny extrapolation about technology with a crowded cast of characters and a narrative that moves in rapid bursts where each chapter is just a handful of pages, the POV always shifting. If this hasn’t already been optioned for a movie or mini series, then Hollywood is missing out.
33. Doctorow, Cory. Walkaway: a Novel (Tor Books). Finished September 5.
I always like and rarely love Doctorow’s novels, and this one is no exception. The difficulty I face is that there are so many different stories trapped inside one book: it’s a book about post-automation economics and what happens when a world of easy plenty is in conflict with older notions of property; it’s a book about the singularity and what it means to upload your consciousness; it’s a book about gender identity and race. It’s a lot… and the parts don’t add up to anything more than the whole. I’m not sad that I read it, but nothing that changed my world view… which is what I want from science fiction.
34. Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harper). Finished September 14.
Holy smokes did this take me a long time. It wasn’t in Kahneman territory, but SHEESH. I started reading the book on June 27, and over the course of the intervening months took several breaks.
On the other hand, I also took 21 pages of notes. It’s a fascinating and wide-ranging history of humanity from when homo sapiens first walked across the African planes to the arrival of money as a kind of operating system for cultures, and I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.
35. Stephenson, Neal and Nicole Galland. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., a Novel (William Morrow). Finished September 27.
Terrific, hard-to-describe, IMMENSE and often very funny 742-page science fiction, time travel story about an attempt to go back to the past in order to save magic from dying at the birth of the age of science.
36. Asaro, Catherine. The Bronze Skies (Skolian Empire Series Book 8) (Baen Books). Finished October 2.
An enjoyable new addition to Asaro’s long-running half romance/ half space opera, although set in the earlier half of the series. One interesting departure is that Asaro writes this (and its predecessor) in the first person rather than her usual third person “free indirect discourse.”
37. Hoffman, Bob. Bad Men: How Advertising Went from a Minor Annoyance to a Major Menace (Type A Group). Finished October 14.
A small but mighty 79-page polemic against ad:tech and everything that’s wrong with it, which is a considerable amount, particularly from the privacy point of view. I loved Hoffman’s other book, Marketers are from Mars; Consumers are from New Jersey, a year or two ago, and Bad Men is just as good. I read it having just come from the Data + Marketing Association’s annual conference — an organization that only merits one brief mention alongside repeated diatribes against the ANA, 4As and IAB — so the issues of data use and misuse by marketers was already very much on my mind. Hoffman’s clarity — remove tracking and most of the problems with ad:tech go away — is refreshing.
38. Galloway, Scott. The Four: the Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google (Portfolio). Finished October 20.
I’ve had the privilege of seeing Galloway interviewed at a conference and enjoy his appearances on the Re/Code podcast with Kara Swisher. He is always provocative, insightful and so very, very snarky. This book, his first, reads a lot like he sounds, which is both good and bad. On the good side, I breezed through the book, merrily underlining and making marginal comments. On the down side, I took not a page of notes, which is unusual for me. The book is heavier on snark than it is on research. Galloway trades on his status as a teacher at NYU, but the book is more of an immense blog post than a work with academic substance. The las chapter about entrepreneurship may be the most enduring, which isn’t a surprise since Galloway himself has been a successful serial entrepreneur.
39. Leckie, Ann. Provenance (Orbit). Finished October 25.
I ADORED Leckie’s “Ancillary” trilogy, so I was delighted to learn about this new novel set in a far-flung corner of the same fictional universe. While the trilogy was a trio of home runs, the new book is merely a base hit. Solid space opera with thoughtful and coherent world building and engaging characters, the weakness was in the anemic plot.
40. Bujold, Lois McMaster. The Prisoner of Lemnos: a Penric and Desdemona Story (Subterranean Press and self-published via Amazon and iBooks). Finished October 29.
One definition of happiness is the release of anything new by Bujold. Although her novels come achingly slow, she has been exploding with Penric and Desdemona novellas (#9, #30) for the last couple of years, to my intense delight.
As with Ben Aaronovitch’s last piece (#28), an interesting feature of the Penric novellas is the business model. I paid $3.99 last night to buy this on iBooks — or to buy a license for it since it’s an ebook — and I presume that 70% of that money went to Bujold, or roughly $2.80 after Apple’s 30% commission. If she sells ten thousand of these, then that’s $28K. At forty thousand that’s $112K. Given her celebrity, I’m guessing it’s closer to forty thousand. And she’s also selling premium printed editions for those diehard fans. This is a nice piece of income, particularly if she can do it multiple times per year.
However, I suspect this is an at-best secondary revenue stream that is parasitic on the larger reputation from her sold-in-bookstore novels in the various series? In other words, this sort of author/reader DTC model is the happy result of salience in the marketplace but it does not in and of itself create or amplify that salience. At least that is my guess.
41. Connelly, Michael. Two Kinds of Truth: a Bosch Novel (Little, Brown). Finished November 3.
Much as I loved Connelly’s last novel, with the new Renee Ballard character, I don’t think I’ll ever get enough of his Harry Bosch stories. Unlike Sherlock Holmes or many other detectives, Bosch has aged over the years and over the novels, now in his late 60s or early 70s, forcibly retired from the LAPD but still working as a detective on a volunteer basis for the San Fernando PD. The cast of secondary characters remains vibrant, and also filled with ongoing tension. The relationship between Bosch and Mickey Heller, his half brother and star of the “Lincoln Lawyer” novels, is convincingly fraternal, with affection, respect and conflict. As usual, I inhaled this book over the course of two or three days.
42. Olson, Erika S. Zero-Sum Game: the Rise of the World’s Largest Derivatives Exchange (Wiley). Finished November 20.
I don’t understand futures or derivatives as well as I’d like to, and the rise of exchanges for bitcoin at the CME Group and its competitors brought my lack of understanding into focus. Olson’s book is a memoir about how the Chicago Mercantile Exchange acquired the Chicago Board of Trade in 2007, with a helpful introduction to how these exchanges function built into the narrative.
43. Newitz, Annalee. Autonomous: a Novel (Tor Books). Finished November 25, 2017.
This just-released and consistently interesting near-future dystopian science fiction novel is set about 120 years in the future at the intersection of robotics, AI and biotech. Newitz, the author (with whom I went to grad school many years ago) has created an intriguing world that combines golden age science fiction tropes about robots (think Asimov’s I, Robot) and self awareness with more recent cyberpunk (Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash) and biotech fiction (the recent Daniel Suarez book Change Agent #20).
Newitz creates a deep, fully-realized world where robots are self-aware but only some are autonomous. In a disturbing parallel, while most humans are enfranchised many are indentured servants. The technology pervades the story at a kind of fractal level, with bioluminescent and self-healing wall paint scaling up to robots who switch bodies over the course of their lives and humans who mod their own bodies in ways ranging from subtle to grotesque. Throughout, Big Pharma with its expensive, copyrighted drugs is in tension with the work of Free Labs that gives drugs away.
Judith “Jack” Chen, one of several protagonists, is a pharma pirate who steals drugs from Big Pharma, reverse engineers them and then releases them on the black market. Other protagonists include Paladin, a self-aware “biobot” with an auxiliary human brain, and Medea “Med” Cohen, a robot scientist who was created to be autonomous and grew up nurtured by a human family.
The plot is spritely — I read the book cover to cover in a day and a half — with engaging characters and a consistently compelling world. The plot Maguffin wasn’t a big surprise, but it was nonetheless satisfying.
This is a strong recommend for science fiction lovers, particularly fans of Stephenson, Cory Doctorow, and William Gibson, all of whom contributed enthusiastic blurbs to Autonomous.
44. Eastland, Sam. Eye of the Red Tsar: a Novel of Suspense (Bantam). Finished November 30.
45. Alter, Adam. Irresistible: the rise of additive technology and the business of keeping us hooked (Penguin Press). Finished December 7.
Back in the 1980s the pro-gun lobby’s slogan was “guns don’t kill people: people kill people,” arguing that guns are neutral tools. I wasn’t sympathetic to that argument at the time because it’s easier to kill another person if you happen to have a custom-built tool for that purpose ready to hand.
Along those lines, Alter’s book usefully argues that the technologies we rely on to run our lives — particularly smart phones and social media — are not neutral tools but deliberately-engineered addictions. The book is a three-part endeavor: first, Alter explores and explains the nature of addiction generally; then, he makes the compelling case that many forms of technology qualify as addiction, and finally he articulates a number of ways his readers can both break the tech addictions and also avoid getting hooked in the first place.
A handy, convincing and pretty-darned scary book.
46. Weir, Andy. Artemis: a Novel (Crown). Finished December 15.
Despite the advice of several friends I could never bring myself to read Weir’s celebrated first novel The Martian (nor see the Matt Damon film) because I found the idea so disturbing– a novel-length version of the classic Poe story “The Premature Burial.” Ack!
Weir’s new book, Artemis, is a delightful hard science fiction romp where Jazz, a smuggler of whom Han Solo would be proud, gets involved in a complex caper on Earth’s fully-colonized, multicultural moon. Complex characterization meets intricately thought out tech and culture in a very near future.
47. Trillin, Calvin. Alice, Let’s Eat: Further Adventures of a Happy Eater (Random House). Finished December 15.
I’ve been aware of Trillin as a writer for many years but never took the time to wade into his delicious prose until David Brooks — a writer I enjoy but with whom I rarely agree — mentioned Trillin’s books about eating in a recent New York Times piece where columnists recommend books to each other. “This strikes me as the perfect season to go back and read some of Calvin Trillin’s hilarious food books. They remind one, in these shadowy times, that the world can be savory and amusing, and still worth rising out of bed for.”
I found Alice, Let’s Eat in my local library and proceeded to irritate my family with non-stop chuckles, giggles and the occasional guffaw. Trillin’s pose as an enthusiastic glutton pitted against the sensible caution — and desire to see parts of the world besides restaurants in their travels — of his wife Alice is an inexhaustible narrative device. A glum mood evaporated once I opened the book, and I now have Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: forty years of funny stuff on my desk to be savored as one of my first books in 2018.
48. Eastland, Sam. Shadow Pass: a Novel of Suspense (Bantam). Finished December 20.
49. Eastland, Sam. Archive 17: a Novel of Suspense (Bantam). Finished December 26.
Having read the first three of Eastman’s Pekkala novels in less than a month — the third in less than a day — I’m of two minds.
On one hand, the books are fast-paced and easily inhaled; the early Soviet setting with flashbacks to the end of the Tsarist regime are powerfully researched, and Pekkala, the Finnish protagonist who is the most-feared detective in the Soviet Union has an uncanny, Holmes-like quality that is compelling.
On the other hand, the Holmes comparison does have drawbacks. Pekkala in the third book seems to have sedimented into a series of narrative gestures. Like Holmes, Pekkala does not possess much in the way of interiority, not a lot of subjective experience. The mission to serve justice is all that is there. In this third book, Pekkala realizes that he was betrayed by his old master the Tsar in the latter days before the Russian Revolution, but that betrayal has no impact on the plot nor on the character’s ways of thinking at the end of the story. I’m therefore becoming less interested in Pekkala because I don’t think I’ll ever get his story, even though he is vexed by the loss of his one true love, Ilya, and feels guilty about not showing his affection for his faithful, Watson-like assistant, Kirov. Recommended by Peter Horan.
50. Mehta, Kumar. The Innovation Biome: a Sustained Business Environment Where Innovation Thrives (River Grove Books). Finished December 28.
If you are lucky enough to have a local bookstore in which to throw rocks, then you can’t throw a rock in a bookstore without it caroming off at least two books about innovation in business. My library at home is full of them, some of which are useful and some of which disappoint. Professionally, I’ve also participated in innovation workshops, mentored at startup incubators affiliated with brands like Pepsi and Nike, and helped to produce entire events devoted to innovation. So I have some expertise within which to evaluate innovation thinking.
What sets Kumar Mehta’s book apart from most innovation treatises is its practicality and applicability. Mehta usefully identifies different levels and styles of corporate endeavor and how those do and do not match different forms of innovation. He also maps out how to avoid GMOOT (“Get Me One Of Those!”) and other shiny object digressions in favor of creating manageable and measurable “biomes” or environments where innovation can thrive. He also provides clearsighted ways to approach innovation, what to avoid, and how to evaluate what you’ve got once you get it.
Most books like these are covert brochures for consultancies where key parts of the described process are left out because the desired result of anybody reading the book is for the reader to hire the consultant. While I certainly foresee businesses engaging Mehta for help understanding and nurturing their own innovation biomes as an accelerant, everything a reader needs to know to make productive use of Mehta’s ideas is right there in the book. This is rare.
And that’s the 50.
What this list doesn’t reflect are re-reads — often late night visits with old friends — or partial reads, nor does it show the disapproving stacks and shelves of books that I haven’t yet managed to finish.
But there’s always 2018.