I think it would be helpful to keep a running list of the books I’ve read in 2017. I have a vague goal of reading something like 30 books in a year so perhaps keeping a page like this might keep me on track. The books will be listing in reverse chronological order (most recent read on top; month completed indicated at end of each synopsis).
Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky
Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz
Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy by Jonathan Taplin
That you and I are products sold by “free” social media websites is both obvious and easily forgotten. With “Move Fast and Break Things”, Jonathan Taplin is on a mission to make sure readers understand the depths to which we are being commoditized and how monopolistic companies like Facebook, Amazon and Google wield levels of rent-seeking power never before seen. Some of the truly pernicious parts of the internet are on full display when the self-contradictory Randian tendencies of internet uber males like PayPal founder Peter Thiel boast things like, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” Yes, Taplin can be a bit polemical in places but (a) that doesn’t mean he’s wrong and (b) I enjoy a good polemic every now and then! “Move Fast and Break Things” reminds us that the original promise of the internet can still be realized but only if we treat the monopolistic parts of the internet as such and begin the decommodification of our friends and our likes. Highly recommended, especially when you find yourself disgusted with Facebook or pissed off at Amazon. (May 2017)
An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take it Back by Elisabeth Rosenthal
Do you want to be beaten down by incessant anecdotes and statistics about how fucked up the US healthcare system? If the answer is yes, then look no further than Elisabeth Rosenthal’s “An American Sickness”. Rosenthal does not say it outright, but our for-profit health market is the rotten root of our sickly healthcare plant. As a public service, “An American Sickness” gets 5 out of 5 stars. However, as piece of narrative nonfiction, it comes in around 3.5 stars. I suppose some of this is not Rosenthal’s fault. Wrangling the complexities and inefficiencies of the US healthcare market into a carefully crafted narrative is an impossible task.
Anyway, to get your blood pressure up and to give you a sense of the education that awaits, here is a small sampling of US healthcare data detailed in “An American Sickness”. Twenty-five years ago, insurers spent 95% of revenue on healthcare, now it’s 80% and much of that goes to overly expensive, often necessary procedures. A 2014 study found that 74% of recent cancer drugs approved by the FDA do not extend life by a single day. Remember Vioxx? Well, in 2000 Merck spent more money on advertising Vioxx alone than did Budweiser, Pepsi or Nike. Oh, and let’s not forget that three years later Merck withdrew Vioxx from the market and paid nearly $1 billion in criminal fines for its sales tactics. In 2010, Glaxo was selling little bottles of Flonase over the counter for $40 while repackaging the same compound as Veramyst, available as a prescription, for those buying through insurance. The standard CHEM-7 blood test costs about $20. Hospitals charge insurers as much as $500. Ambulance services, once largely a public service, have nearly tripled in revenue in some cities since 2000. Last, but by no means least, most industrialized countries spend about 8% of GDP on healthcare. The comparable US rate is 18% and nearly 75% of all hospital bills contain one or more mistakes.
So, if you want more of that sort of fun go ahead and read “An American Sickness”. Just make sure your heart is healthy enough before starting. (April 2017)
American War by Omar El Akkad
Set around the year 2080, America is in the midst of a second civil war. The Blue north and midwest are fighting the Red state (a combination of Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina). Why? Ecological disaster pushed the federal government to ban fossil fuels, a decision met with considerable pushback in much of the south. Shortly thereafter, a president is killed and the divisions between Blue and Red are set. Meanwhile, much of the American southwest has been reclaimed by Mexico. Significant portions of the east and gulf coasts are underwater. Oh, there’s also a plague that caused the entirety of what’s left of South Carolina to be quarantined. The first half of the book follows young Sarat Chestnut as she and her family deal with the realities of war as refugees. In the second half, Sarat, despite having no clear allegiance to either side, becomes one of the war’s most significant players. The parallels to America’s long-running involvement in the Middle East are obvious but “American War” approaches compelling because of El Akkad’s absorbing amalgam of election 2016 politics and Iraq War 2003 tactics. (April 2017)
The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson
Not sure why I read this, but I did and it was largely a waste of time. Maybe there’s enough here to make a decent Medium article, but that’s about it. I’ll save you the trouble and let you know what the deep insights of this early thirty-something self-help bro all comes down to. (1) Don’t be a schmuck (2) don’t be an asshole and (3) stop chasing happiness all the damn time. The first 20 pages were kind of fun, but then you soon realize what this bro’s act is all about and it gets repetitive. Don’t read this book. Instead, read a book that gives you a chance to learn something about the world. (April 2017)
The Body Builders: Inside the Science of the Engineered Human by Adam Piore
Are we creating treatments and technologies to help the paralyzed move, the senile to remember and the locked-in ALS patient to communicate, or are we, like Daedalus and his son Icarus, flying too close to the sun. For Adam Piore, author of “The Body Builders: Inside the Science of the Engineered Human”, the answer lies clearly with the more optimistic set of possibilities. Writing in a style similar to Mary Roach, Piore introduces us to a wide-ranging cast of scientists, engineers, tinkerers and patients to explore the leading edges of engineering of the human body and brain. While Piore’s stories typically start with improvements to the lives of the disabled, the potential to enhance all of our lives and to stave of the ravages of time is really his essential thesis. The episodic nature of each chapter allows each story to stand on its own. Taken together, these stories provide a compelling arc exploring the limits of human potential in both mind and body. Strong stuff. (March 2017)
Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter
If you’re reading this review, there is a good chance you display some level of behavioral addiction to the internet. If you got here by way of social media, well then you almost certainly are an addict. A book like Cal Newport’s Deep Work will have you thinking that technology exists solely to distract. Adam Alter’s Irresistible takes things to a different level. Technology is not just distracting. It’s an intentionally designed addictive distraction. 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 (Apparently, goldfish have a 9 second attention span) and 70% of recipients start reading corporate email within 6 seconds of its digital arrival. People crave novelty so much that they’re even willing to seek it in their goddamn work email! Most of the behaviors that concern Alter have roots in smartphones and the easy access to addictive games and social media they provide. The pull of smartphones is so strong that their mere presence creates cognitive demand provoking distraction. Alter references a study showing lower level of engagement between talking strangers when smartphones were just lying, unused, on a table. Anecdotally, we teachers see this phenomenon in class as well. Students who put a smartphone next to their notebook come across as being less engaged that those who keep phones in their backpacks. Although he may stretch some behavioral studies beyond their original findings, Alter makes a strong and multifaceted case that our behavioral addiction to technology is real and getting much, much worse. Sorry, I need to end this review now. I have to check for likes on my last Facebook post. (March 2017)
How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Scientist and author Lisa Feldman Barrett is out to start nothing short of a revolution in our understanding of emotions and she’s convinced (and fairly convincing) that modern neuroscience backs her up. Barrett’s argument is that any given emotion is a construction built atop experience which is itself inseparable from our uniquely human capacities of concepts and language. Put simply, emotions do not just happen; instead, they are a lifetime in the making. If you like your popular science big, broad and incredibly well referenced with over a 100 pages of appendices and references, How Emotions Are Made will be a winner for you. Furthermore, Barrett is not shy when it comes to offering potential implications of her perspective including that artificial intelligence is unlikely to master emotional recognition and that stand-your-ground laws lack scientific legitimacy among others. A readable and detailed example of popular science at its best. (March 2017)
Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari
When I read a nonfiction book, I typically mark interesting bits with those small post-it note flags. Well, my copy of Home Deus is now 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 are compelling. Printed on high quality paper to accommodate several color pictures, this book is both physically and intellectually weighty. I’m still wondering how convinced of Harari’s analysis I ultimately will be, thus the need to review all the flagged bits, but there’s no doubt the ideas come quickly and well articulated throughout. If you like your history macro and your predictions about the future to come with just the right amount of dystopia, Home Deus is for you. It’s clearly one of the big nonfiction releases of 2017 and destined to be on several Best of 2017 lists, including mine. (March 2017)
Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation by Alan Burdick
Einstein taught us that time, as a physical phenomenon, is relative. Turns out that time is relative in just about every other context as well. Meatier and more detailed than the average “pop science” book, Why Time Flies considers the physical measurement, the biological construction and the psychological experience thereof. Author Alan Burdick sprinkles in his own experiences of time as the owner of a broken watch, a mildly procrastinating author, a son of an elderly parent, a free-falling and magnetized test subject and, most poignantly, a father of young twin boys among his discussions of protein “clocks” , attosecond spectroscopy and synchronizing synapses. Why Time Flies is at its best when considering the concept of “now” and serves as a more scientific and more personal companion to James Gleick’s more literary and historical Time Travel. If you enjoy (or can tolerate) some detail regarding experimental methodology, then set a bit of it aside and learn why time flies. Highly recommended for the philosophically and psychologically inclined. (Feb 2017)
The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation by Randall Fuller
Entering freshmen year of college, my plan A major was chemistry. If that didn’t pan out, history was involved in plan B. Long story short, plan A stuck it out for four years of college, five years of graduate school and a teaching career wrapping up its second decade. The Book That Changed America is a reminder that the space between plans A and B could have been taken more seriously. The college freshmen version of me didn’t know it then, but the one sub-genre of science nonfiction I consistently enjoy the most is the history (and philosophy) of science. Author Randall Fuller tells the story of how the single greatest scientific idea anyone ever had, evolution, made its way to and across America starting in late 1859. For America, the story of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is inextricably linked to the years and movements surrounding the Civil War. Because of the link between abolition and the literary world of mid to late-19th century Massachusetts, the impact of Darwin’s dangerous idea on the transcendentalists is similarly undeniable. Some readers will come to Fuller’s work already knowing the likes of Thoreau and May Alcott. Others will be well versed in the details of Darwin’s theory and its early American champion Asa Gray. The Book That Changed America brings these two camps together. Overall, The Book That Changed America is a wonderful telling of the early days of the American history of Darwin’s borderless and timeless idea. (Feb 2017)
The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World by Brad Stone.
The Upstarts tells the origin stories of Uber and Airbnb. Outside of the obvious players like Google, Amazon and Facebook, I can’t think of two companies that have changed large sectors of the economy more than Airbnb and Uber. What’s more, these companies have enacted global changes by way of a series of local changes, one market at a time. Nobody knows what these companies will eventually become, but the stories of their origins and adolescent years is worth learning. (Feb 2017)
Against Democracy by Jason Brennan
I’ll admit that the 2016 presidential election and ensuing events really soured me on politics and the American experiment. It’s one thing for people to act in ways that are not in their best interest. It’s another when large groups of people simultaneously act in ways that are not in my best interest either. Maybe there’s something better than democracy out there. Maybe this was a book I needed to read to blow of some steam. Either way, Brennan’s arguments for an epistocracy are fun and thought provoking. Hopefully the handful of distracting typos in the hardcover edition will be addressed prior to the paperback release. (Feb 2017)
The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel
Much of the early, systemic classification of the visible universe was done by a group of dedicated women at Harvard in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Glass Universe is their story. Sobel’s work here serves as a historical compendium/prequel to Shetterly’s Hidden Figures. While the latter focused on the achievements of black women calculators during WW II and the space race, it is not a stretch to suggest that the contributions of the women working at the Harvard observatory from 1860 to 1950 were an essential antecedent. The Glass Universe is occasionally bogged down by the day-to-day details of an evolving list of characters, but the willing reader will find plenty to enjoy in this recounting of an overlooked portion of science history. (Jan 2017)
The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter by David Sax
First, a bit of irony. I was unable to find a hardcopy at the time this book caught my attention so I cashed in an Audible credit and listened to it during my commute. So much for the revenge of analog. Anyway, as someone who fancies himself a bit of a pen collector and who is rarely without a paper notebook in a back pocket, much of Sax’s take on the importance of the tangible resonated with me. His defense of analog makes it best case when discussing vinyl and paper. It doesn’t take a lot of market research to see that independent record and book stores are still around. While I think Sax is onto something when he argues that many listeners, including younger music fans, are attracted to the visceral vinyl experience, his reasons for why hardcopy books continue to dominate is less convincing. It makes sense that most book buyers are willing to pay a $2-$3 premium for a hardcopy over an ebook. Would they be willing to pay a $5-$6 premium? We may never find out because publishers refuse to price ebooks at rates that make sense. Still, there is much to enjoy in Sax’s analysis. Along with the opening chapter on vinyl, The Revenge of Analog is at its most interesting during the second part when analog ideas about retail, work and schooling are discussed in detail. (Jan 2017)
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport
Part scree against multitasking, part self-help book and part productivity advice, Deep Work is the kind of book that might get you to rethink some of your daily practices. For quite some time now, I have despised almost everything about email. I hate getting it. I hate sending it. I hate checking it. I hate thinking about checking it. If I needed any more convincing, Newport’s anti-email perspective put me over the top. Email is easily one of the biggest sources of distraction in my professional life. Since finishing Deep Work, I have removed email access (both personal and professional) from my iPhone and I’ve updated my classroom management plans at school with language that basically tells students to never email me. Once you understand that you are almost always addressing someone else’s concerns when emailing you more clearly understand the toll it takes on your own time and space to work. Not surprisingly, Newport has similar things to say about social media. If for no other reason, Deep Work is worth reading so you better understand the variety of ways (almost none of them credible) technology and other demands on your attention are preventing you from doing your best thinking. If you don’t read the book, then at least stop checking your email first, second or third thing in the morning. (Jan 2017)
The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu
Ever hear the term “net neutrality”? If so, Tim Wu’s the guy who coined it. In The Attention Merchants, Wu offers a history on the many forces vying for our attention. From newspapers, to Amos and Andy, to TV gameshows, to AOL chatrooms and social media, The Attention Merchants takes a historical approach detailing the fight for our attention across generations via various forms of media. It is easy to think that the internet and social media have changed everything. In some ways, that’s undeniable true. But in other, more fundamental ways, the attention-harvesting DNA of various platforms show little evolution. In short, The Attention Merchants helped me realize the historical nature of media’s fight for our collective attention and Deep Work offered some prescriptions. (Jan 2017)
Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild
In the wake of the presidential election it seems that the conservative, white, working-class voter has become a thing worthy of study. Conventional wisdom has it that progressives forgot about these voters leaving an avenue for candidate Trump to become president Trump. While progressive have certainly been distracted by identity politics in the last decade, I’d argue that Trump’s victory has more to do with his incessant lying, a gullible public and James Comey’s questionable ethics. Putting all that aside, Strangers in Their Own Land offers plenty of insight into rural, working-class white America. I suppose credit it due to Hochschild for, as she puts it several times, climbing over the empathy wall in an effort to understand fellow Americans living a noticeably different existence. While some of these folks worked in the petroleum/energy industry in Louisiana, all of them were affected by it on various levels. They understand better than most the balance between appropriate safety and conservation regulations and excessive regulations that cost jobs. Energy extraction/production is a dirty business. The people profiled here lived that reality their entire lives and deserve our consideration. Perhaps it’s a failing on my part, but that’s as far as I can climb the empathy wall. The resentment these working-class folks had for poorer people is palpable and while none of them come across as overtly racist, that animus simmers not so far from the surface. Thoroughly documented with ample supporting materials, Strangers in Their Own Land is the work of a serious academic taking the time to study those she does not understand. While reading, I kept wondering if theses white, working-class people would be as willing to climb Hochschild’s empathy wall and head north to NYC or west to San Francisco. By the end of the book I was pretty convinced the answer would be no. An genuinely interesting and frequently frustrating read. (Jan 2017)