Books 2012

Books completed in the year 2012:

 

In July – Language and Problems of Knowledge (Noam Chonsky)

The European Revolutions(Jonathan Sperber)

A Theory of Justice (John Rawls)

16 June – Strike! (Jeremy Brecher)

8 June – In Praise of Reason (Michael Lynch) – A book read more for its bibliography than for any hope of engaging with its arguments. I now have a bit more of a reading list.

4 June – Sybil (Benjamin Disraeli) – A political novel about the rich and the poor from 1845. Mostly interesting as a historical artifact, the novel is not much to today’s reader, but it does paint a picture of what Disraeli wanted to talk about in 1845 – three years before the year of revolutions that more or less passed England by.

2 June – Basic Writings of John Stuart Mill (John Stuart Mill) – Read fairly slowly through these. I like Mill – he’s careful and clear. The Subjection of Women is probably the least interesting to read today, since it has been so thoroughly absorbed into the common understanding, there is nothing here to argue with. It takes a little work to pull out the interesting threads – Mill’s rejection of tradition as justification is actually nicely done, but it’s easy to skip over it since the point he’s trying to establish is not a point at issue today.  Subjection is also more of a polemic than a philosophical paper, and becomes repetitive early on. Utilitarianism and On Liberty are more interesting to read today. I’m pretty well convinced that I’m not a utilitarian, but the method is worth understanding.

28 May – In the Shadow of the Buddha – Spritual discovery and political intrigue in this true-life historical adventure novel. Or something. Best read as an anthropological document: what does this true believer see when he’s traveling among the true believers? Since I’m neither a true believer nor likely to travel among such, this is as close as I’m likely to come to understanding that world.

28 May – American Freedom/American Slavery (Edmund Morgan) – Despite the name, this turns out to be a loosely-constructed history of the colony of Virginia, with some interesting insights that end up seeming mostly inadvertant. Not great.

26 May – Naked City  (Ed. Ellen Datlow) – A very good collection of fair-to-excellent short fiction, loosely gathered around the theme of “urban fantasy”. That is, non-technological variations on quotidian reality, set in cities. These range from the oddly popular Jim Butcher (not so odd: he mixes a mediocre Chandler rip-off with easy-to-swallow magic, resulting in a frothy, easy-going concoction that fronts tough-as-nails) through fine work by Peter Beagle, Elizabeth Bear, Lucius Shepard, and others, to the delightful “And Go Like This” by John Crowley. The Crowley story is indescribably alluring, a sort of Saramago fantasy based on a quote from Buckminster Fuller, and it’s ten pages of reading I glad I didn’t miss.

Late April/Early March:

China Mountain Zhang (Maureen F. McHugh)

The King of Elfland’s Daughter (Lord Dunsany)

Doorways In the Sand (Roger Zelazny)

The Last Place on Earth(Roland Huntford)

Tales From Super-Science Fiction (ed. Robert Silverberg)

Big Trouble (J. Anthony Lukas)

Late March and Early April (I’ve been busy):

Four For Tomorrow (Roger Zelazny)

The Story of Mathematics (Lloyd Motz & Jefferson Hane Weaver)

Whit (Iain Banks)

The Ruling Caste (David Gilmour)

Frost & Fire (Roger Zelazny)

Journey Into the Past (Stefan Zweig)

March 19 – Darwin’s Radio (Greg Bear) – Big Ideas SF, with characters. I was impressed that Bear was able to keep hold of his characters in a story with this sort of scope. There rather a few of them, including significant minor characters, and they all keep their own personalities throughout. This is a good thing.

March 3 – John Henry Days (Colson Whitehead) Great fun. If more contemporary novels were like this, I wouldn’t hate the contemporary novel.

February 29 – The Hanging Gardens (Ian Rankin) I think this may be the end of my Ian Rankin run. I know he’s got more books I haven’t read, but I don’t think I could bear any more of them.

February 28 – The Historian’s Craft (Marc Bloch) Sketches for what would probably have ended up a very tedious book about how history is done. In their fragmentary condition, they are quite interesting, and the story behind their composition almost forces one to consider them good.

February 26 – The Untouchable (John Banville) At last, a writer who understands what makes le Carré so good, and is able to present this in his own way. Not up to leCarré’s level, I think, but quite good all the same.

February 25 – The Universal History of Computing (Georges Ifrah) Some books present answers, some gather up nice collections of questions. This is one of the latter. I feel I don’t know more from reading it, but I have a better idea of where to look, and what to look for. This is useful.

February 15 – Halting State (Charles Stross) Stross seems to have a knack for good stories with weird but plausible futures. This one is a weird-but-plausible near future, a little further out than those Gibson has been exploring lately, but not by much. However, things get a lot weirder, and it’s excellent. Stross is a little uncomfortable with characters, being better acquainted with plot and idea, but he does pretty well all the same.

February 12 – The Filter Bubble (Eli Pariser)  A Big Idea book, meaning that the author was given a contract on the basis of an elevator pitch, and then realized he had to actually write the book, and really had nothing more than the pitch. As usual, the pitch gets him through the first chapter, and then the book descends into loosely-connected anecdotes and loosely-reasoned explanations. Unfortunate, since the premise is not a bad one.

February 11 – Methods of Ethics (Henry Sidgwick) – First of many readings of this, I think. Sidgwick’s style is overly wordy and dense. It’s difficult to unpack what it is he’s after until you’ve got through to the end, and then you have to go back and evaluate it again. This is an effective approach if your goal is to convince people, but it’s not ideal if you want them to understand what you’re actually saying. It  may be necessary to make elaborate and detailed notes to this book in order to understand it. As it is, the margins are nearly black with annotations.

February 7 – The Man Of Numbers (Keith Devlin) – History of Fibonacci’s work. Brief, but effective. Devlin makes good use of what is known and does not exaggerate the available data. Instead he spends much of the book talking about the way Fibonacci represents and solves the problems he poses, and this discussion is enlightening.

February 7 – From Java To Ruby (Bruce Tate) – Bruce Tate Likes Ruby for 150 pages. Nothing useful. Chock full of awful logic, spurious numbers, and cheerleading for a language. Devoid of anything about the language itself.

January 31 – How Are We To Live? (Peter Singer) – Philosophy has always been conceived as an attempt to understand how to live the best life, so it’s not too much of a stretch to find a serious ethicist writing what comes across as a self-help book. It’s not clear whether Singer intends this for an academic or a lay audience, since it seems to fall in between the two, but I will assume that it is aimed at the educated professional with enough spare time to read about ethics.  Singer takes the position that living ethically ultimately makes one’s life better. I don’t find the book especially convincing on the whole, but I was struck by some of his conclusions. “At the most fundamental level of ethical thinking, I must consider the interests of my enemies as well as my friends, of strangers as well as my family. Only if, after taking into account the interests and preferences of all these people, I still think that the action is better than any alternative open to me, can I genuinely say that I ought to do it.” This is a strong statement, and it embraces some potentially sticky conclusions. But it has the advantage of being a clear and universal prescription for action which can be plausibly defended. Worth arguing about, in any case.

January 30 – Chinatown Beat (Henry Chang) – Another flaccid police procedural with a moody detective fighting the good fight against corruption and institutionalized injustice, and finding love and himself along the way. And, yeah, he gets a in a gunfight and gets a little scratched. If anything could cure me of hope, I’d think this book might be it. I’ll keep trying, though.

January 24 – The Graphical Presentation of Statistical Information (Edward Tufte) Opinionated and sometimes questionable, but well worth reading as an excellent course through the issues of graphic design for technical communication. Even if he’s wrong at times, he certainly makes you think about what he’s saying, and it’s worth thinking about.

January 23 – 18 Minutes (??) Eminently forgettable self-help tripe. Read it for work book group. The format is simple: anecdote plus bland good advice plus somewhat forced droll humor drizzled over the top. Tedious, but none of the advice is actually bad (though it is often self-contradictory, so presumably little of it is actually any good).

January 16 – The Age of Revolution (Eric Hobsbawm) Summary of Europe from 1790 to 1848, part of EH’s extended history of modern Europe. About 2/3 chronology of politics and such followed by summary chapters on topic of interest, including developments in religious and secular ideology, art, and science.

January 13 – The Inheritors (William Golding) A novel about prehistoric man. It turns out, unfortunately, that prehistoric man wasn’t very interesting.

January 11 – The Monkey’s Wrench (Primo Levi) A series of semi-connected stories, told by a composite character to a writer and chemical engineer much like Levi. I don’t know if he had anything more elaborate in mind, but even in translation, the rigger comes across as a very real and human character. Not a symbol of the working man, but an actual working man. That’s plenty, from where I’m standing.

January 8 – Bleeding Hearts (Ian Rankin) Even considering the  fact that the whole thing is a McGuffin and the apparent “mystery” is obvious from the start, and the complete implausibility of the inevitable romance, and the inevitable redshirts getting killed off in convenient ways, this is only a half-bad book.

January 1 – Program or Be Programmed (Douglas Rushkoff)  Rushkoff thinks that something is very wrong with the internet. He’s right, of course, but not convincing. The main advantage of this book is that it is even shorter than Sandi Toksvig.

January 1 – Mrs. Adams in Winter (Michael O’Brien) A useful piece of “local color” history, detailing some of what was involved in travelling from Saint Petersburg to Paris in 1815. The cost of the journey is reckoned at close to $30,000 in contemporary dollars, which suggests that there is another story to tell. Presumably those without access to this sort of sum still managed to get from one place to another. This aspect is unexplored by O’Brien, though he does range freely from topic to topic, hoping, presumably, to fill out a fairly thin central narrative.

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