Here's the best of what I read in 2018. I set myself an arbitrary count of ten, which forced me to think hard about which books had a meaningful impact on me, i.e. not just “great books I can unhesitatingly recommend”.
The shortlist had 38 books on it; getting that list down to ten was painful! I read one hugely important book on health, important enough that I’ve put it at the top of the list. Two mini-themes: (a) an optimistic view of humanity’s future (Rosling and Lepore above all); and (b) Einstein (?!). Two of the ten books involve Einstein as a major protagonist. I’m not sure what that means, but it’s fitting that his “God letter” was a subject of some interest as the year drew to a close.
As always, I provide a line or two of commentary on, and a quote from, each work. The titles link to the Amazon Kindle store page for the book. Page numbers are provided for the quotes if available and Kindle locations if not.
Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, Matthew Walker
I’ve been on a journey of health-related discovery for a while now. This is the big one, the jackpot, the one ring to rule them all. Read this book: it will terrify you into getting your sleep act together. Much of the impact derives from the deep science and the academic and clinical credentials of the author.
Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer. (P3)
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, Hans Rosling
There is a wonderful sequence of charts on page 59 of this book — 16 “bad things decreasing” and 16 “good things increasing”. I challenge you to glance at these and not come to the same conclusion I did — things are far, far better than faffing around on the Internet would lead us to believe. Rosling is a rousing cheerleader, but the facts speak with or without his enthusiasm. These are the best of times, even when they feel like the worst.
In large part, it is because of our negativity instinct: our instinct to notice the bad more than the good. There are three things going on here: the misremembering of the past; selective reporting by journalists and activists; and the feeling that as long as things are bad it’s heartless to say they are getting better. (P64)
The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World, Simon Winchester
I stumbled upon this book just as I was thinking about this exact phenomenon — namely the staggering precision that surrounds us, not just in the electronic machinery we use that has to work at the nanometer scale, but in the enormous man-made objects from skyscrapers to bridges to space stations that also need to operate within very tight constraints. We take these for granted; yet precision is the foundation of virtually all of modernity.
At the same time, this phenomenon of precision, like oxygen or the English language, is something we take for granted, is largely unseen, can seldom be fully imagined, and is rarely properly discussed, at least by those of us in the laity. Yet it is always there, an essential aspect of modernity that makes the modern possible. (P7)
What Is Real?: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics, Adam Becker
I feel like I’ve been waiting for this book ever since I discovered quantum physics in my teens. The woolly-headed opaqueness of Bohr’s Copenhagen interpretation always left me with a headache. One emerges from this book with a hugely enhanced appreciation for Einstein, who perceived all along that the emperor had no clothes.
The Copenhagen interpretation, true to form, gives a mystical pseudo-answer steeped in the language of Bohr’s philosophy of complementarity. (P100)
These Truths: A History of the United States, Jill Lepore
This book left me more optimistic about the United States than I have been in a long while. This is almost certainly contrary to the intent — the author has a grumpy air throughout and ends the book on a grim note. But the overwhelming impression by then is of a polity that, again and again, inches its way closer to a perfect union. As can be seen in the quote below, there is very little new under the sun in American politics — this too shall pass.
“Though we live under the form of a republic,” Justice Joseph Story said, “we are in fact under the absolute rule of a single man.” Jackson vetoed laws passed by Congress (becoming the first president to assume this power). At one point, he dismissed his entire cabinet. “The man we have made our President has made himself our despot, and the Constitution now lies a heap of ruins at his feet,” declared a senator from Rhode Island, “When the way to his object lies through the Constitution, the Constitution has not the strength of a cobweb to restrain him from breaking through it.” His critics dubbed him “King Andrew.” (P212)
Clement Attlee: The Man Who Made Modern Britain, John Bew
I’d known that Attlee was unfairly overlooked in modern historiography, and this book speaks to his political achievements in full. What I did not expect was the degree to which his personal story is compelling and inspirational. In a sense he was a traitor to his (elite) class, and as a young man set aside a safe path in order to help those much less fortunate — and never wavered from that commitment throughout his long life.
There was something else that motivated Attlee in these years, and did so more than anyone else in government: this was the conviction that the old British Empire, that of Queen Victoria and the Diamond Jubilee, had come to an end, and should not be supported beyond its natural lifespan. (P346)
All Who Go Do Not Return: A Memoir, Shulem Deen
This is an extraordinarily moving memoir, the best such I can remember reading in a very long while. Here I want to highlight two things: (a) The incredible quality of the writing; and (b) the insight into the human condition in general, in other words this is as much about humanity as it is about the specific religious community that Deen apostasized from.
This incident highlighted something I had often thought: the most vociferous advocates for unthinking adherence to principles, the ones inclined to protest loudest, perhaps even to resort to violence, were not necessarily those with the weakest minds. In fact, it was often those with superior minds who offered the strongest reactions, as if by doing so, they closed their own minds with that force, precisely because they were more attuned to the challenges. Zeal compensates for fear. (L3221)
Annihilation of Caste: The Annotated Critical Edition, B.R. Ambedkar
Arundhati Roy’s erudite and angry introduction is worth the price of admission in itself. Then we get to Ambedkar, of whom Roy writes: “History has been unkind to Ambedkar. First it contained him and then it glorified him... it has hidden away his writings. It has stripped away the radical intellect and the searing insolence”. The title essay is (tragically) as fresh, and radical, and searing, as it was when written 82 years ago. Read and it weep, as I did.
...the festivals observed by the different castes amongst the Hindus are the same. Yet these parallel performances of similar festivals by the different castes have not bound them into one integral whole. For that purpose what is necessary is for a man to share and participate in a common activity, so that the same emotions are aroused in him that animate the others. Making the individual a sharer or partner in the associated activity, so that he feels its success as his success, its failure as his failure, is the real thing that binds men and makes a society of them. The caste system prevents common activity; and by preventing common activity, it has prevented the Hindus from becoming a society with a unified life and a consciousness of its own being. (P23)
Echoes of an Autobiography, Naguib Mahfouz
Mahfouz chose to write what he calls an autobiography as a collection of brief anecdotes, aphorisms, and mystical ramblings. It is not a traditional memoir in any sense whatsoever, so get this only if you’re in the mood to savor ambiguity. It hangs together in the most compelling manner.
“I saw an enormous person with a stomach as large as the ocean, and a mouth that could swallow an elephant. I asked him in amazement, “Who are you, sir?” He answered with surprise, “I am forgetfulness. How could you have forgotten me?” (L903)
Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman
This novel was published 25 years ago by a physics professor trying his hand at the humanities. Each brief chapter presents a different variation on the nature of life in the city of Bern in the summer of 1905 (the time and place of Einstein’s miraculous period of discovery). Time itself has a different meaning in each episode. This might seem just a clever literary conceit, but in Lightman’s hands, it becomes something much deeper (and darker).
The tragedy of this world is that no one is happy, whether stuck in a time of pain or of joy. The tragedy of this world is that everyone is alone. For a life in the past cannot be shared with the present. Each person who gets stuck in time gets stuck alone. (L371)