Best Books of 2017

Dedicating oneself to reading goals made sense for a lot of Trump-based reasons in 2017. Because reading time and meat-RAM are limited, I’m selective about the books I choose to read. As a result, I avoid lemons and find plenty to like. What follows are the best of the lot, in no particular order, of the 42 titles residing on my Books Read 2017 page.

Scale: The Search for Simplicity and Unity in the Complexity of Life, from Cells to Cities, Companies to Ecosystems, Milliseconds to Millennia by Geoffrey West
Although it’s probably about 80 pages too long, West presents a lively tour of fractals, complexity, emergent systems and networks within biological, engineered, and social settings. One part of the long story short…cities are the future.

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert Sapolsky
Are you looking for a well-written explanation of the science behind human behavior? Are you looking for one that takes a retrospective view starting in the present with the neurotransmitter actions of an adult and working backwards through adolescence, childhood, in-utero, previous generations, etc.? Are you looking for one with incredibly funny footnotes? Well then, give what may be my single favorite book of the year a read.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari
I typically mark interesting bits of a book with those small post-it note flags. My copy of Home Deus is filthy with post-it notes. There was not necessarily any new content here for me, but the combination of ideas and overall argument outlining the forces that have and will shape humanity were consistently compelling even if they were not always convincing. Read Sapolsky’s Behave and Harari’s Homo Deus back-to-back and you will learn much about the nature/nurture dynamic involved in humanity’s past, present and future.

Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter
Much of what concerns Alter can be summarized in two stats: the average human attention span decreased from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2013 (FWIW, goldfish have a 9 second attention span) and 70% of recipients start reading corporate emails within 6 seconds of their inboxing. People crave novelty so much that we seek it in our goddamn work email! Most of these behaviors have roots in cleverly designed smartphones and their easy access to addictive games and social media. You will not look at your smartphone the same again and, if you are like me, will become protective of your time and attention.

Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz
Probably the most entertaining nonfiction book I read in 2017 and one of the few books I’ve read that clearly displays the power of “big data” to a wider readership. Stephens-Davidowitz is convinced he can tell a lot about us based on our aggregate Google searches. If he’s right, the implications for public health, personal identity, and politics are immense and we are just getting started.

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen
A popular, sweeping history offering an explanation for America’s particular brand of wackiness. Specifically, Andersen tries to explain the American penchant for falling for hucksters religious, mercantile, and political. While it is easy to accuse Andersen of writing a “just so” narrative filtered by selection bias and filled with oversimplifications, it is a fun “just so” narrative and one that I, a lapsed New England congregationalist, saw hitting close to home on several fronts.

A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg
Although not the sweeping tomb of a book like Behave, A Crack in Creation may well be the most important life sciences book of the year. Control over germ and somatic cell lines draws seemingly closer every week and Jennifer Doudna, the key discoverer of CRISPR technology, is at the front of these scientific battles. Doudna and Sternberg do an excellent job of blending scientific explanations with stories of people and milestones behind said science. In the years to come, A Crack in Creation will be recognized as an early classic in the accelerating story of life, version 2.0.

WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us by Tim O’Reilly
Easily one of the most captivating books I’ve read this year and the needed counterbalance to the various Silicon Valley polemics I also read this year. I did not cotton on to O’Reilly’s objective at first. Is this another Silicon Valley memoir? Is this some sort of “I’ve made millions and you can too” business book? It’s a bit of the former and, thankfully, none of the latter. More importantly, it’s a thoroughly-considered take on the role technology could play, ought to play, in the lives of real people confronting uncertainties for the future of work and the broader economy. A wonderful and much needed dose of optimism firmly grounded in reality.

Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Max Tegmark
By exploring the past, present and future of artificial intelligence, Tegmark’s book creates a nice trio with Doudna’s A Crack in Creation and O’Reilly’s WTF?. While Doudna explains the state-of-the-art and future in modifying the genomic basis of humanity, Tegmark considers what the 1’s and 0’s have in store for us. Where O’Reilly tells us his personal story as a technology entrepreneur and his hopes for the role technology could play in the future, Tegmark provides a broader perspective on the historical development and plausible future technology is likely to play in all of our lives. The life sciences are situated to explore and explain who we will become in body. Meanwhile, the computer sciences may have the ultimate say in who we become in mind. Tegmark has written an important book to help us understand the overlapping spaces.

The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World by Jeff Goodell
While far from pessimistic, Goodell’s book reminds us that, no matter how much control over Mother Nature we gain via biotechnology or how many improvements over her we create via artificial intelligence, she will be heard and she will speak loudly. Unfortunately, too few of us are listening. Goodell’s warm and even-keeled combination of story telling and science reporting makes The Water Will Come a standout example of environmental journalism. Coastlines are disappearing. Major population centers in first-, second- and third-world countries are already confronting persistent flooding. We need to come to terms with the following facts:  we need to (a) spend billions of dollars to stave off the worst effects of flooding and (b) figure out somewhere else for millions of people to live. We will need to do these things soon, very soon.

Here’s to 2018…