2018 Books

Posted on January 3, 2019 by Noon van der Silk

I’ve seen a few people post the books that they’ve read over the last year; so I thought I’d also get in on the action. Here are the books that I read (or partially read), in no particular order, last year:

Non-Fiction

The Oregon Experiment by Christopher W. Alexander, Murray Silverstein, Shlomo Angel, Sara Ishikawa, Denny Abrams

Anyone that knows me, knows that Christopher Alexander is basically my personal Jesus. This book is amazing, to me in it’s demonstration of Alexander’s (and collaborators) standard approach to architecture; i.e building via small local activities in an endless cycle according to a specific and developing pattern language. It also contains very important insights, in my mind, in terms of project management and budgeting.

Educated by Tara Westover

I learned about this one from Bill Gates. It’s amazing. I found it really fascinating to read about Tara’s life, and how she understood her upbringing. It makes you think quite a lot about the things you tell yourself to make sense of the situations you’re in.

Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe

Soon to be (if not already) an Australian classic; it’s very interesting to learn an entirely different history about our country and the Aboriginal people. I found it to be reasonably hard reading because there are some solid descriptions of various items and processes that it would’ve been amazing to have pictures of. In any case, necessary reading.

Radical Candor by Kim Malone Scott

I basically hated this book. I think, on the one hand, it does have useful information in it; but for me it came across too much like standard Silicon Valley propoganda. I do think there is good stuff in here, for leaders that struggle with feedback.

Cities for People by Jan Gehl

Recommended to me by Ryan, who was working as a Barista at from Streat, this book is, apparently, a classic of urban planning. It’s amazing. It has a incredibly readable style; with lots of pictures and summaries of each paragraph. Jan has had a lot of impact in designing Melbourne, so it’s really interesting to read this book and see and understand the impact he and his team have had.

Factfulness by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund

Quite good. From this book I learned about the website Dollar Street, which is incredible and well worth a visit. Hans has many questions in the book; almost all of which I answered wrong, much like most of his audience that he’s asked the questions to. I learned a lot about how to think about world-wide progress, and that there are interesting organisations out there doing interesting work. I also learned, much to my surprise, that the World Bank isn’t a bank in the sense that I would’ve assumed; it’s main goal is to end poverty!

Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

Not bad. This is the first book of Steven Pinker I’ve read. I’m unlikely to read more, after learning about some sexist views he’s had from Delusions of Gender (not a book I’ve read yet; but heard thoughts from my partner).

I found this book to be reasonably good, and make some solid arguments for continuing to fight against people that don’t think progress is real. Unfortunately, to paraphrase a joke from the Simposns, Steven seems like the kind of person that can use graphs to prove anything that is even remotely true. It contains too many anecdotes and cherry-picked examples.

I’d recommend Factfulness over this one.

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

Really great. I’ve always been a bit of a hippie, and am mostly vegetarian, so when my partner found out I’d be reading this one, she started to get a bit concerned that I’d soon not even eat greens! Now, I haven’t quite gone that far, but I do really love the ideas and science in this book; and I think it’s really interesting to think of trees and their root-systems as being some giant entity. The one downside to this book is that it occasionally lacks pictures of the concepts that are being described.

Surfaces and Essences by Douglas R. Hofstadter, Emmanuel Sander

Amazing. Probably not for people feeling a bit impatient. The book goes into many examples of the ideas; and makes a strong argument for the idea that all thinking is based on analogies. I’ve always loved analogies, so I’m naturally a big fan.

As someone presently working in AI, I found this book full of many incredibly interesting and relevant ideas; one of which we discussed previously.

If you’re at all interested in when computers might be able to get to think like humans, definitely have a read!

Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright

Amazing. Recommended to me by my friend Julia. Probably one of the best books I’ve ever read, really; right up there with Christopher Alexander’s “Nature of Order” and “The Timeless Way of Building”. This book is particularly neat, of course, because it takes a scientific approach to making sense of buddhist ideas. Overall, I find lots of agreement between this book, and the ideas of Christopher Alexander, and Surfaces and Essences.

Inferior by Angela Saini

Pretty interesting. In this book Angela debunks many myths about the supposed biological differences between men and women. This is the first book of this kind that I’ve read; it won’t be the last.

I read this because my partners dad had it in the house. It’s pretty good; it’s really interesting to see the thoughts from someone from so far back in history. For me, this book resonated with the ideas I read in “Why Buddhism is True”. Worth reading if you happen upon it.

Siddartha by Hermann Hesse

I was not a fan of this. Recommended to me by my partner; I found it to be way too “on the nose” about enlightenment. I felt like I was being dragged around to understand certain things, in an obliquely mystical way. Maybe it’s because I read it after I read Why Buddhism is True; which is much more direct and scientific.

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

Quite good; but quite “American”. If you don’t like too much american-style dreams of success and culture, you might not like this. There’s also the video of the talk that inspired it that is well worth watching.

I watched the video way back in the day; and thought I’d finally read the book. I wasn’t disappointed, but I’m not sure I got much new out of the book that I didn’t get out of the talk. Still, worth grabbing if you got something out of the talk.

The Big Picture by Sean Carroll

Not great. Before I’d read this, I really had thought I liked Sean Carroll. But, this book comes across to me as very arrogant. As someone who’s read way too many popular physics books, it contained a fair amount that wasn’t new to me (but that’s okay), but also a fair amount of just plain arrogance about what is known, where we can expect progress and what areas are accessible to science.

Lost Connections by Johann Hari

I really enjoyed this. I’ve also suffered (mild, I think) depression, and can really relate to the ideas in this book; namely making connections with people. Probably not the solution for everyone, but interesting reading.

Made by Humans by Ellen Broad

Not bad. Fairly introductory thoughts on the topic, but from someone working in policy on this area. Nice to see an Australian view on these issues. Worth reading it you want a broad overview.

Reality is Not What it Seems by Carlo Rovelli

This is okay. I get very frustrated these days by books that are implicitly sexist; using language like “when man discovered this”, etc, and this book does that a fair bit. I think I was hoping for this to answer more questions than it did; or to be a bit more detailed. I think I probably just misjudged the intended audience.

Your Brain Is a Time Machine by Dean Buonomano

Pretty good. I haven’t read much about neuroscience, and I am really mostly confused about the physics of time, and problems like the so-called “arrow of time”, and such. So I found this to be pretty interesting, and have some good ideas in it that I hadn’t thought about, such as different “clocks” in the body for different purposes.

I Feel You by Cris Beam

Interesting, but odd. I found this book to be worthwhile reading; in particular because it lead me to some interesting ideas around the ethics of AI. Cris goes into weird details of empathy in use in businesses, and life. Overall, worth taking a look at.

How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan

Great. Never having taken psychadelics myself, and basically having the view that they are a bit dangerous, this book totally changed my mind. I found it totally fascinating, alongside Why Buddhism is True, in terms of a potential path towards enlightenment. It’s certainly interesting to learn about the history of psychadelic drugs, and think about the connection to mindful meditation.

Incredible. As we learned at the start, Christopher Alexander is my personal Jesus and this set of books is essentially his bible. As a result, this is amazing reading for me. He describes what it means for something to “have life”; he goes into detail by way of examples, a mathematical model, and a practical, hands-on theory. He breaks it down into what he refers to as “centers”; things that build on each other.

The Value of Everything by Mariana Mazzucato

Amazing. I’m only part of the way through this book, but I love it. We saw Mariana talk at some event a few weeks ago; and she’s an amazing speaker with a incredibly ability to talk with enthusiasm about complicated ideas.

This book is all about “value” vs “price”; and what industries should be considered “productive” in how they contributed to the economoy. In particular it’s really opened my eyes about the finance industry. Amazing reading.

How To Sit, How To Walk by Thich Nhat Hanh

Amazing, and useful. I’ve found these two (small) books really good to read when I’m feeling stressed or overwhelmed. They contain many little thoughts that help ground and relax you.

Fiction

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Pretty good. Best read without too much knowledge of what it’s about. Worth reading.

The Martian by Andy Weir

Awesome. Instant classic. Great fun.

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Pretty fun. A nice and simple read. I enjoyed it.

The Broken Earth Series: The Fifth Season, The Obselisk Gate, The Stone Sky, by N. K. Jemisin

Incredible. The first series of books I read by N. K. Jemisin. I couldn’t put these down, and as soon as I’d finished the first one I bought the remaining two and couldn’t wait to read them.

The Inheritance Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin

Really great. N. K. Jemisin is easily my favourite Sci-Fi author at the moment and I’ll probably read anything she writes. So interesting, unique, and innovative.

The Dreamblood Duology by N. K. Jemisin

Really great. Quite different, really, from The Inheritance Trilogy, but still amazing.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Not bad. I picked it up off the table in the bookshop because it had won the Pulitzer Prize, and I figured it might be good. I found it to be pretty good; but utlimately not quite my style.

The Stormlight Archive The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, Oathbringer, by Brandon Sanderson

Awesome. I discovered Brandon after looking for something new after finishing The Wheel of Time. I’m really enjoying this series, and can’t wait for the next one!

Hope you enjoyed this list! If you have any suggestions of books, I’d be really interested!