Inspired by a brilliant post by Kyra Maya Phillips of identical vein, I thought I’d discuss the books I read in 2014. I’ve always enjoyed reading, but for a long time it was a solitary pursuit, something I conducted as a purely internal mental exercise. This started to change this year and I’m enjoying the fleeting conversations I get to share on the rare occasion I find a friend (or perfect stranger) who’s read the same book as me.
I’ve also been passing on the books I enjoy most to friends. It’s bittersweet. The books I enjoy most I tend to form an emotional connection with, but passing that on is something worth the impulse to hoard them on a dusty shelf. Most of my favourites in this list are now in the hands of friends, but some aren’t. They’re yours if you want them.
My memory isn’t perfect, to the point where some books listed below I may have read in 2013, I don’t know, I wasn’t keeping track. If their reading has been mis-dated, it’s because they left an impression on me that so is indelible as to excuse (in my eyes at least) their erroneously included endorsement.
The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety – Alan Watts
I began reading this book as I became disillusioned by what I saw as an introductory university philosophy module that was biased entirely towards western thought and philosophy. Alan Watts was known as a great populariser and explainer of Eastern thought for the Western audience. Reading this quickly confirmed all I’d read about him. Watts presents unfamiliar ideas concisely without ever making them feel alien, though this is says as much about the innateness of the content as it does about its author.
In short, this book was a revelation for me. It’s hard to explain quite how, and I suspect its effect will differ from person to person, indeed that’s what the book drives home in some respects. I think I put it best with a recent description for a friend: it’s had the biggest impact on how I think about the world and how and when I’m happy. That’s not to say I’m happy more often, but I’m happier to have read this book.
If you read one book in this post, read this. Ask nicely and I’ll buy it for you, I believe you should read it so much.
Age of Context – Robert Scoble and Shel Israel
This book discusses emerging technology and the current state of the near future. I was expecting to like it more than I did, but I think my disappointment was due in part to my large familiarity with the topic at hand. I found myself most aggravated when what I saw as opinion was passed of as an inevitable forecast, regardless of whether I agreed with the prediction or not.
The non technical reader may well delight in this tour of tomorrow. It’s breadth is vast (to the detriment of the depth it penetrates any single topic with, the source of most of my complaints). In the wake of the Snowden revelations, I’ve taken a keener interest in privacy on the web, which has only led me to dismiss the closing chapter more so than at the time of reading.
If this book has taught me anything, it’s that penning a brief opinion of a book you didn’t like is immeasurably easier than for a book you did like. The former does not burden you with doing the text justice in quite the way the latter does.
The Sea Close By – Albert Camus
I read this brilliant short story as a love letter to the sea, taking it at face value as an antidote to the intense exercise of reading into every minutiae of Crime and Punishment. It was a welcome 15 minutes of relief. I’ve since been told to go back and read it as an existentialist piece of philosophy. I haven’t, yet.
Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
This book was the bane of my summer. I knew before I embarked upon it I was making a big commitment to a bigger book, but little could prepare me. Never has the feeling come and gone so frequently to want to put down a book mid-reading. Aside from the unexplained, unfamiliar naming conventions of 19th century Russia was the sheer weight of each sentence in what I was assured was the best translation to English around.
The first three quarters were very hard. However, be it the excitement of the culmination of an epic saga or my gaining familiarity with the quirks and conventions of the text, the closing 200 odd pages were a roller coaster of confrontation and suspense. Raskolnikov, the book’s protangonist, also represents a recurring character I seemed to have read over and over in my choices of fiction; the defiant, self centred, arrogant male. I enjoy these types a lot. Prophetic much?
I wish I knew where I first heard this phrase which rings truer upon finishing books such as these than any other time: “A classic is a book one wants to have read, but does not wish to read”.
Essays in Love – Alan de Botton
I read this book in under a week at a time when I was really struggling to motivate myself to read Crime and Punishment. I knew de Botton was a respected philosophy writer, but didn’t want something too heavy in that regard. Essays in love fit the bill perfectly.
Following the relationship of a young couple who fall in love on a flight from Paris to London, it’s hard to pigeonhole Essays in Love into fiction or non-fiction. The story is, we’re told, for the most part imagined, but the exploratory depth afforded each stage of the relationship, and the subtle changes of course and decisions taken therein, blends with incredible ease a sharp, ascerbic but accessible comment on love in the modern world. I was left giddy with agreement, a feeling I’ve most often felt when a particularly angst ridden Smiths lyric catches me in the mood akin to the one I suspect a young Morrissey inhabited most of his writing hours.
What stood out most was this book’s comment on the impossible paradox of entering into romantic relationships. You must playact that this is a love that will last forever when a reasonable mind knows chasing the eternal is a practice eternally doomed. De Botton puts that better than me. Read the book and you’ll see.
Big Data – Victor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier
Rubbish popular science that trades the principles that make scientific exploration and communication at all valuable for whizz-bang buzzwords and un-citable, un-provable and unreasonable conclusions. All in the name of impressing rather than informing the reader. At times I felt I gained more experience in three years studying physics of manipulating large data sets than these two combined. I can’t be bothered to verify that, but a quick google doesn’t immediate allay my fears. Avoid.
The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction – Nate Silver
A book about statistics published today is necessarily book about big data. Silver’s non-fiction blows Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier out of the water. Barring a forgettable chapter or two about earthquakes, this book rekindled an interest for statistics I hadn’t held for a long time. I finished the book smarter than when I started and better equipped to debunk and deride would-be forecasters of the future (an exercise I’d somewhat abandoned as a source of anxiety after reading Alan Watt’s book). That said, this book will interest the non-scientific mind also. Every chapter is an exploration of a relatable, real world topic that is at the mercy of poor prediction: weather forecasting, the stock market, presidential elections, placing bets and the NBA draft to name a few.
It also ticks a box I require of every good non-fiction: inline with Socrates’s definition of intelligence, which I will forever poorly mis-remeber as “an intelligent person is one who knows the bounds of their ignorance”, Silver’s book will leave you knowing more about what we don’t know more than anything else. I think this is one of the healthiest things a book can do for you.
Perfume – Patrick Süskind
This is the second of three books whose lead character was a defiant, arrogant male. Perfume follows the life of a master perfumer, unravelling the potent combination of unmatched talent, ambition and ambivalence to others that can lead a twisted mind to do grisly things in the pursuit of perfection, whatever form that may take. I had no idea until I’d finished the book that it was originally written in German. The language bore incredible poetry which rose above the at times abhorrent scenes it described. This had the effect of romanticising the grotesque actions of a madman, painting the most generous picture possible of the means so as to justify a hyper-idealised end. I was gripped from grim start to grisly finish.
Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut
I bought this novel after reading a single quote from it (I forget where). The blurb calls it “the most original anti-war novel since Catch-22” so I knew I was off to a good start. I’ve never done this book justice in describing its plot to friends. I just attempted and failed again. So I will resign myself to including the quote that so inspired me to get my hands on a copy.
“You were just babies then!” she said. “What?” I said. “You were just babies in the war — like the ones upstairs!” I nodded that this was true. We had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood. “But you’re not going to write it that way, are you.” This wasn’t a question. It was an accusation. “I — I don’t know,” I said. “Well I know,” she said. “You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be portrayed in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.” So then I understood. It was war that made her so angry. She didn’t want her babies or anybody else’s babies killed in wars. And she thought wars were partly encouraged by books and movies. So I held up my right hand and I made her a promise: “Mary,” I said, “I don’t think this book of mine is ever going to be finished. I must have written five thousand pages by now, and thrown them all away. If I ever do finish it, though, I give you my word of honor: there won’t be a part for Frank Sinatra or John Wayne. “I tell you what,” I said, “I’ll call it The Children’s Crusade.” She was my friend after that.
Really enjoying Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, some of the best fiction I’ve read in ages
A photo posted by Jeshua Maxey (@jeshuamaxey) on May 5, 2014 at 10:22am PDT
Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
The third book in this list to feature an arrogant male as it’s lead character and the first book I’ve ever read that made me burst out laughing, Catch 22 was a revelation. Not since I read Douglas Adams’s A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy have I been so brilliantly reminded that books can be funny. It’s a shame I have to be reminded at all, but Ms West’s GCSE English classes are still fresh in the memory.
Giving the pile of books to my side a quick scan reveals I saved more pages in this book than any other. The narrative fills the 500 or so pages without ever dragging on. The dearth of characters that parody the fallacies of war and blind obedience to power so well leave you simultaneously uncertain as to where the book will go next, but sure that it will be as funny as it is incisive. Unlike Crime and Punishment, this is a classic one wants to read.
The Dot & the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics – Norton Justner
I bought this book after reading about it in my favourite blog of whimsy and interestingness, Brain Pickings. It’s not about the words so much as the images. It follows the angst of a straight line, hopelessly in love with a dot who does not reciprocate the line’s feelings. The illustrations are so good so as to ‘tell’ the story in a way that the words can only ‘describe’.
Light relief and a reminder that it doesn’t have to be all Dostoyevsky and Kafka.
The Trial – Franz Kafka
I wrote this before I realised I read this book in 2013. That shan’t stop me recommending it very highly.
This whole book is incredible and if I was allowing myself more time to go into the details of each title in this list I could tell you exactly why I think that. But I’m not, so I’ll tell you what I’ve told everyone about The Trial; chapter 9 is the best chapter of fiction I’ve ever read. What it conveys about access to information and power through metaphor struck a powerful chord with me. If I had the text to hand, I’d re-read it in order to reap upon it higher praise still. Instead, a string of Kafka puns will have to suffice.
Roll on 2015
I’m already pretty excited about 2015. Below is the pile of books that will start me off, but if you have suggestions as to what I should read next, leave a comment.