Wednesday, February 11, 2009

2008 Best Books Reads & Listens

Steve’s Best Reads and Listens for 2008

Best reads of 2008. Wow, the list seems short. I blame this in part on the internet, where, if you look carefully, you can find a lot of worthwhile reading. For instance, economist turned Evolutionary Fitness guru, Art DeVany. Historian Niall Ferguson and iconoclast Nassim Taleb are also out there, and that way you don’t have to wait for the next book. Also, I started some books but didn’t get to the end (usually because of length and the demands of time.) Sometimes I forget to write them down. Nevertheless, let’s talk books completed. The rules: completed by either reading or listening. The top picks of 2008 (in no particular order):

1. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive & Others Die by Chip & Dan Heath. Getting people to listen is no easy task. This is a business book, and these two authors (brothers) give the basics. Basic, sensible ideas.

2. In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollen. We heard him speak about this at the ICPL. Pollan is a strong writer who reflects on the ins and outs of what we eat, with some basic guidelines.

3. The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by Andre Comte-Sponville. This book isn’t a rant, but a careful consideration of belief and spirituality. Comte-Sponville lost his Roman Catholic faith, but he retains a deep respect for the tradition and the need for spirituality. Despite his loss of traditional faith, he keeps a sense of awe and respect toward that which we cannot apprehend. As an aside, his Small Treatise on the Great Virtues made a previous list, and I still highly recommend it.

4. I Don't Believe in Atheists by Chris Hedges. The perfect book-end to the Comte-Sponville book. As opposed as their titles might suggest, I found them quite similar in outlook. Hedges is unhappy with the angry atheists, the militants Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. In a prior book, he took on the American right wing. Where does he stand? With the likes of Reinhold Niebuhr and others, who remind us of the fallibility of humankind. Thoughtful and considered.

5. Moneyball by Michael Lewis. The story of the Oakland A’s and sabermetrics. Interesting? Very, even for me, who’s not a baseball fan. But the story of how statistics and independent thinking led to a team with a tiny budget and a lot of wins. A fun and interesting read.

6. No Simple Victory: The War in Europe 1939-1945 by Norman Davies. What more can be said about WWII? A lot, it turns out. Davies is a British historian, and this careful history taught me a lot. Most of all, WWII really took place in terms of its greatest battles, its greatest carnage, on the Eastern Front, British and American prejudices not withstanding. A great listen for me.

7. Nietzsche: Living with the Immoralist by Robert Solomon. I still mourn the passing of Solomon, whose writing always invited the non-professional philosopher into the conversation. Here he deals with that bag of contradictions, Nietzsche. This is the book that grew out of his Teaching Company lectures on the same topic. Solomon doesn’t just tell us what Nietzsche thought, he considers him, discusses him, in all his wonderful and frightening complexity. In doing so, Solomon makes us think about ourselves. Well done!

8. The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism by Andrew Bacevich. An IR guy out of the military who lost a son in Iraq. Very sad. But Bacevich is a clear-eyed observer and tells it like it is. Very solid.

9. Your Brain is Almost Perfect: How We Make Decisions by Read Montague. How our brains work is endlessly fascinating, equally so, how they fail us. Montague takes us from the basic biological mechanisms to the practical affairs of life in this careful consideration.

10. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee. This book came recommended by a speaker at a continuing legal education seminar for trial lawyers, who, after all, are trying to tell a winning story on behalf of their clients. For someone who’s seen a lot of movies, this book was exceptionally interesting and eye-opening. From Aristotle to the latest flicks, this guy talks and shows us what makes for compelling story-telling. Really quite fascinating and instructive.

The two “books of the year” (hey, I’m doing very well to keep it to two):

11. The Dark Side: The Inside Story on How the War on Terror Turned into the War on American Ideals by Jane Mayer. In other words, how the Bush administration turned America into a nation of torture and lawlessness. Genuinely frightening. However, there are good guys. Who are they? Bona fide “conservatives”: lawyers (unlike Bush and Chaney) who placed value in the rule of law above political expediency and the feel-good policies of frightened reaction. Many were forced out of office, but they kept a sense of law and decency. I am still ashamed at what happened and that I didn’t speak out more. But then, we didn’t know the half of it until Mayer told the story.

12. Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, & Disease by Gary Taubes. Be warned: this is not a diet book! At least in the usual sense of the term in the publishing world. It’s a science book about diet. However, it’s also about the foibles of science, the chance discoveries and lost opportunities. You’ll never think the same about fats and carbs after your read this book, and you’ll never blindly accept what the newest Department of Ag food pyramid says. Quite thorough and well-done.


2009 is already off to a great start: a visit to Greeneland after an absence of many years (Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair), and more into economics: development (after seeing the challenges of Cameroon I’ve already completed Jeffrey Sachs’s Common Wealth), financial (what the hell happened?), and behavioral (economics may yet catch up with the ancient Greeks about how humans really act). Of continuing interest will be Buddhists and Stoics (I think them similar and wise). A frequent topic of vocational, practical, and intellectual interest is how we live with each other (communication and persuasion) and how we think (neuroscience and evolutionary perspectives). Of course, I continue to vow to read more fiction. Snow is high on my list. In the mean time, enjoy a good book!