Matt Perryman Matt Perryman

My Favorite Books from 2011

I read a lot. Have I mentioned that? This year I managed to put back more than a few books, and now that we’re winding up 2011 I want to give a nod to those that really stuck out to me (a list which, in the interest of brevity, only covers books published in 2011) as an informal sequel to my recent post about learning new things.

As I say on my Goodreads profile, I only tend to read books that I have a good idea I’m going to like in the first place, and those I approach from an optimistically bright outlook such that I’m probably going to find something interesting, thought-provoking, and just entertaining enough to rate well. The presence of a book on this list does not serve as an endorsement of every statement or argument made within said book. It only means that I found something of value in reading it.

There’s virtually nothing fitness-related here, as I don’t really care for most of those books, although at least some of the nonfiction will be (indirectly) of interest to any exercise buff. I’m also including fiction along with the nonfiction because, well, I just want to.

Books of 2011 that I Read and Enjoyed

The Information: A Theory, A History, A Flood by James Gleick. Gleick has to be one of the best science writers, and after his biographies of Richard Feynman, Isaac Newton, and his book on chaos theory, he didn’t disappoint. I happened to come across this one shortly after reading Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach, and let me tell you that was a well-timed segue. Gleick starts out with a history of messaging and communication which quickly stumbles into Claude Shannon’s information theory, Alan Turing’s whole thing with computation, and where we are now with the problems of complexity and nonlinearity (themes which seem to keep popping up everywhere for me, which I take to be a sign of the gods I don’t otherwise believe in. I also read Cryptonomicon around this same time frame, and I don’t know if I had some unconscious selections going on or what, but I felt mildly awed at the conjunction).

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker. Having just recently finished this title, I’m still not quite done digesting it. The best word I can use to describe this book is “ambitious”, and as I write this I’m confident in saying Pinker set out achieving what he wanted to achieve: dispelling the common belief that we live in a more violent world than ever. He trashes the myth of the “noble savage”, validating Thomas Hobbes’ “war of all against all” and the notion that life before the advent of modern civilization was indeed short, nasty, and brutish. He points to forces of pacification and civilization which have had the net effect of not just reducing violence, but — at least in modern Western nations — lowering it to historically unprecedented levels. We’re living in an aberration of peace, as history goes, and Pinker does not shirk on the statistical or historical data to make his point.

I found this to be above all else a thought-provoker and context-shaker. With paleofantasies of lost golden ages in the past being all the rage these days, I’m glad to see someone temper the nostalgia with a sobering appreciation of Enlightenment values and the modern world. Unless you’re a raw psychopath you’ll come out of this with more appreciation than ever for the timing of your birth and the trappings of modern liberal civilization.

The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths by Michael Shermer. A nice fun summary of all the psychological biases that define “human stupidity”. Shermer starts out with the premise of “belief-dependent realism”, that we humans don’t reason our way to truth but instead start with ideas we like and then work backwards, using our intellects to construct a nice-sounding story to rationalize what we already think. The idea of the lying brain has been another spooky recurrence in my recent readings, in which our decision-making isn’t nearly so rational as we expect it to be.

Amusingly enough, even intelligence is no insurance against irrationality, as Shermer cites research showing that the more intelligent aren’t better at discriminating truth from brain-generated fiction, but they are good at using their intelligence to spin out rock-solid justifications for their irrationalities. If you’re one of those people who goes through life exasperated at how “stupid” human beings are, Shermer will go a long way towards curing your ails. Not only is there a good explanation for all manner of dumb behaviors, but you can’t help picking up a little humility on realizing that, ego aside, you make all those same mistakes in some way or another. A fascinating read in any case, and, if you’re not familiar with the psychology of self-deception, it’s a good overview and accessible starting point.

The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good by David J. Linden. Linden gives us a comprehensive look at the pleasure-reward axis (a topic I’ve discussed in the past in my articles on motivation and neurological aspects of fatigue) as a driver of behavior in mammals, starting with Olds and Milner’s brain-electrode experiments and showing how the dopamine and opioid signals of the reward centers drive us to do all kinds of kooky and self-destructive things. Things like overeating or exercising ourselves into the ground, or getting hooked on cocaine or the craps table. All of these behaviors activate the same “feel-good” circuits in your brain.

I enjoyed this as another piece in the lying-brain puzzle, told this time from the perspective of the unconscious, emotional brain. The so-called pleasure-reward axis is of particular interest to me in its relationship to not only motivated behavior, but how it affects our concepts of “willpower” and (especially) the relationship to voluntary movement. If you’re not familiar with any of that, this is a great place to start.

The Ego Trick: In Search of the Self by Julian Baggini. The Ego Trick tackles some thorny questions of selfhood and identity (what really does happen to Captain Kirk when he steps into the transporter?), straying into current views on philosophy of mind. Being that much of the book is philosophical meanderings — albeit very lay-accessible — some of you may be put off. Nevertheless, following on from The Information and my earlier reading of Godel, Escher, Bach, I found it a solid continuation of those themes and a well-stated view of what identity “is”.

Why Marx Was Right by Terry Eagleton. This book, which covers exactly what the title suggests, probably won’t be popular — because, you know, Karl Marx — but I still found it an interesting look at the political beliefs and philosophies of one of history’s most controversial characters. Even if you’re only interested for historical completeness, Eagleton makes a reasonable case that Marx wasn’t quite the advocate of views often ascribed to him. How accurate Eagleton’s assessment is I can’t say for sure, not having read a whole ton of Marx’s writings, but the picture he paints is certainly a far cry from the caricaturish pejorative thrown around in internet debates. As per my criteria, I appreciate anything that brings nuance to the table and makes me think in the process.

The Filter Bubble: What The Internet Is Hiding From You by Eli Pariser. A must-read for anyone heavily reliant on social networks and search engines for news and information. In a mockery of Orwellian totalitarianism, competitive market forces meant to customize your user experience are also shaping your reality more than you might realize, determining what you do (or don’t) hear about through clever editing of the information you’re presented. Big Brother watches you and controls what you think…because that generates ad revenue.

You can watch Pariser’s TED talk on filter bubbles to get a taste of his argument.

The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human by V.S. Ramachandran. The brain, how it generates sensations of experience and how that’s all tuned in to motor control and language. Ramachandran covers the sweep of modern neuroscience, tackling issues of movement, language, intelligence, and empathy. Worth a read just for the survey of knowledge.

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values by Sam Harris. Sam Harris’s work of philosophy by way of neuroscience, an attempt to solve David Hume’s “is-ought problem” by arguing that science can indeed prescribe moral values (at least in principle) by defining a standard of “well-being”. I didn’t find myself entirely on board with his conclusions, for a variety of reasons that probably aren’t important right now, but I still found a lot to think about here.

REAMDE by Neal Stephenson. It’s Neal Stephenson with another 1000 page adventure thriller. I can’t say no to that. The meandering geek-chic Stephenson novel may not be up your alley but personally I can’t get enough of them. And this time he actually wrote an ending.

Embassytown by China Mieville. In the field of currently-active authors of non-mainstream fiction, China Mieville sits up in the fabled land of Read Anything With His Name On It. I find myself in a strange place with fiction, in that I don’t care at all for trendy vampire books or 13-book fantasy series that rehash Tolkien, so there’s not always a lot to go on in the speculative fiction genre. If it were conceptually possible for me to rank my favorite authors by an ordered list, China Mieville be in the top five (probably). I’m just finishing up Kraken as I write this and I’m positively dazzled by his skill with prose and the not-quite-right worlds he manages to paint with it.

Embassytown is his first foray into “science fiction”, complete with spaceships and aliens, but even so he manages to put a clever spin on the pulp. In fact the plot centers on matters of language and communication, as a remote colony of humans interact with a bizarre race of aliens that literally cannot lie. Hijinks, of course, ensue.

The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan. As far as authors I really enjoy, Egan may well be the most underrated. It may be that he’s a recluse, or that he’s not shy about teaching physics classes (no, really) during the course of his novels. I understand that could put off a lot of readers who just want some vampires or rayguns or other trappings of genre fiction. I find that easy to overlook because I don’t think I’ve encountered another author of speculative fiction who can blow me away with ideas in quite the same way. Egan is one of those horizon-expanders, if you could imagine Philip K. Dick blowing you away with physics instead of drugs and hallucinations (and I could slot a dig in about better prose and characters, but PKD will get no hate from me).

The Clockwork Rocket, the first in a new trilogy, happens in a universe where the speed of light isn’t a constant, which is interesting enough, except that Egan takes it a step further and fleshes out what that conceit really means with a precision that might floor Einstein. Egan’s worked out the consequences to a staggering degree, and it shows in the setting. The book was worth the read just to see that in action.

Stealth of Nations by Robert Neuwirth. Written as a travelogue adventure to China, Nigeria, and the South American black markets of Paraguay and Brazil. Neuwirth plays on words with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (a quote from Smith’s work introduces each chapter), showing how the illegal, underground and unregulated “System D” stands second only to the US as the engine of economic productivity.

Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven and Hell With Black Sabbath by Tony Iommi. Yes, that Tony Iommi. Sabbath’s always been one of my favorite acts, and I enjoyed reading about the band and all it’s troubles from Iommi’s perspective. Plenty of times I found myself laughing out loud or sympathizing with their drunken antics.

Books of 2011 I’m Not Quite Done With

Life Itself: A Memoir by Roger Ebert. A surprisingly good book. I have to admit I’ve never rated movie critics all that highly, Ebert included, but he’s a lucid and insightful man and not at all what I expected. I’m glad I followed up on the suggestion. All the fun you’d expect from the biography of a man who moves in both newspaper and Hollywood circles, and even a few gems about the art and practice of writing, which I always enjoy.

Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How physics and scientific thinking illuminate the universe and the modern world by Lisa Randall. I’ve only just started this one and consequently I’m sitting right past the intro and before the first page of Chapter One. The introduction looks promising, and Lisa Randall is one of the smartest people in the world with regard to theoretical physics and all the mathematical headaches that entails, so I expect good things.

Books of 2011 That I Wanted to Read but Won’t Get to Until Next Year

I got really backlogged and there was a long waiting list at the library to boot. I’ll get to these as soon as they turn up.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, along with his partner the late Amos Tversky, did a lot of the original research into cognitive biases back in the 1970s and thus have influenced the psychology posts I’ve made over the last year or two. Yes, the lying brain yet again. Like Shermer’s Believing Brain, I expect this will have a lot to say about distortions and self-estimation errors that we’re all prone to making.

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney. Baumeister is yet another researcher of note within the sphere of my personal universe, who specializes in, among other things, willpower. It was his team that discovered willpower to be a finite resource, that concentrating and focusing on one task makes it much harder to flex your will in order to do something else. It’s an interesting subject to me, in that the “willpower centers” also tie back into the motivational and reward circuits, making the ego-depletion phenomenon very close to the whole “central fatigue” subject. I’ve read most of Baumeister’s published research, but I’m always interested in another perspective.

Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber. How debt began in history and where it is now. Should be fun.

11/22/63 by Stephen King. It’s Stephen King, and going by the reviews its a Good Stephen King, so I’m keen to pick it up.

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. Murakami is an acquired taste, like Pynchon or Franzen, but I’m easily mesmerized by the dense postmodern novel so I’m wanting to have a look at this one.