Here’s a list of good books I read or listened to this year. Not all of them were published this year. If philosophical topics make you frown, skip to the programming books near the end.
Anarchy Evolution by Greg Graffin
Greg Graffin is the lead singer of Punk band Bad Religion. He’s also is a PhD zoologist who teaches at UCLA. This book is part autobiography, part manifesto. He alternates between telling stories about his childhood, including some stories about being a teenager in a legendary band when hardcore began. (For much more about the hardcore scene, see the 2nd edition of American Hardcore by Steven Blush, one of my favorite books).
Like me, Graffin accepts the two big A ideas: anarchy and atheism. Keep this in context that I reject the modern hijacking of anarchist to mean thugs dealing random violence, which is similar to how the neighbor-lovers have tried to spoil selfish. (The meek call it rational self-interest). But Graffin does try to dance around the atheist moniker, preferring to consider himself a monist. That is, monism (one reality) as compared to dualism (natural and supernatural realms). He argues that the atheist label is unfitting because it’s a negative and impractical because most people consider it negative.
My sense of life matches well with Graffin’s, and devoured this book while on my trip to Hawaii in August. This is a great book.
God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales by Penn Jillette
Let’s set aside the obvious winning elements of this book: Penn Jillette is highly entertaining. He’s often laugh-outloud funny. He’s appealingly confident, and he makes you want to be as cool as he is. This book rambles around in stories from Penn’s life while trying to stick loosely to the aim of making several philosophical arguments. It’s wonderful.
The book would be completely satisfying with this alone, but it also contains an compelling argument that keeps bouncing around in my skull. Not content with being an ordinary atheist, Penn considers himself a hardcore atheist. Ordinary atheists have no belief in god. Penn does not believe anyone else believes in god. He makes a compelling argument that I feel obliged to accept until shown otherwise. The argument is simple: anyone who truly considered the bible a literal word of god would just likely expire immediately in a desperate, self-destructive attempt to save the souls of the sinners among them. Read the book to get the detailed argument. It’s fun!
Tricks of the Mind by Derren Brown
This book continues my collection of memoir-manifestos written by atheists. Brown published this book in 2006, but only in the UK and it took me some time to get a copy. Actually, almost all of his stuff in nearly impossible to get legitimately if you’re in the U.S. All of the TV shows I’ve seen by him are superb. I just finished watching the four-part “Experiments” show that was on BBC recently. There are easy ways to find the content, but it’s out of scope for me to explain.
Derren Brown is a performer who uses techniques from hypnosis and stage magic. He doesn’t do tricks that rely on props. It’s all misdirection and reading. He know how to spot marks who hypnotize easily, which he exploits for some extremely-entertaining TV. For example, I’ve seen him shake someone’s hand and immediately cause that person to fall down asleep on the ground. This book is so compelling because he explains much of how he performs these tricks.
Like the previous two books, Brown covers some biographical territory while explaining general concepts. The book is not a how-to guide, although there are parts that do explain techniques in detail. In one part, he offers some methods for memorizing long lists of information, for example. The most startling part of the book is about hypnosis, particularly his assertion that there isn’t enough evidence that a true trance actually exists, that there is just as much evidence that people are merely playing along when they flap their wings like a chicken on stage.
The Elfish Gene by Mark Barrowcliffe
If you played Dungeons & Dragons when you were a kid, read this book. Despite Barrowcliffe spinning D&D as something that nearly ruined his life, all those nights of sitting around a table rolling dice will come back to you in a nostalgic glow. It got me to try playing with my kids, just like my dad and mom did with me when I was little. And they loved it just as much as I did.
Barrowcliffe is slightly older than me, and he discovered roleplaying games just about when they first appeared, whereas I didn’t play D&D until after the “basic set” was released. Some of his stories are interesting for historical reasons. I had wondered about the Empire of the Petal Throne, having some vague knowledge that it existed from articles in Dragon. I hadn’t realized that it was a popular contemporary to D&D in the 1970s.
The depiction of the group dynamics really brought me back, reminding me of both the frustrations and triumphs involved with pen-and-paper RPGs. There’s something magical about how these games draw you into their spell, making you treat the story as if it were real life. This book captures that experience better than anything else I’ve read or seen.
Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt
I guess you can tell that I don’t read a lot of fiction–unless I’m reading aloud to the kids. This is another personal memoir, this one from stand-up comedian Patton Oswalt. Like Barrowcliffe in the Elfish Gene, Oswalt is D&D-playing nerd, an awkward adolescent who somehow escapes the doom of his terrible obsessions and bad decisions. I guess that’s why liked these books so much. They almost seem like they are about me.
Patton Oswalt is hilarious. This book is hilarious. And you should read it.
The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson
Ronson is the guy who wrote The Men Who Stare At Goats. I haven’t read it or seen the movie. I picked up this book because I like psychology books. Ronson is a journalist who is great at landing unlikely interviews. The book hooks you with a mystery about books mailed anonymously to people around the world. That leads Ronson to Bob Hare’s psychopath test, a checklist that aims to recognize the truly insane. From there, he tries to answer the question of whether most powerful people in the world are in fact psychopaths. I won’t spoil the fun of the book by sharing the conclusion. It’s a fun trip and quick read.
Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids by Brian Douglas Caplan
This book is a careful analysis of the costs and benefits of having kids. Caplan takes an analytic approach and concludes that having more kids is ultimately beneficial. I appreciated how he addressed well-known data about how having children at all tends to make people miserable. It really boils down to the idea that having lots of kids is painful while they are children but wonderful after they are adults because they tend to take care of you. This is a fun book which plenty of math if you want to dig into the statistics.
Flawless Consulting by Peter Block
This book is in its third edition and up to date with regard to technology. I hadn’t read previous editions. As a consultant myself, I found it insightful and helpful to my business. Block actually argues that nearly everyone is a consultant, either external or internal. He defines a consultant as someone who helps find solutions for teams for which they don’t belong. And so, his techniques can be useful for just about anyone. To prove this, he relates a story of how a public school teacher applied his techniques in the classroom to great success.
Block’s approach is psychological. He guides you toward paying attention to the emotional factors. In the problem-solving role, we consultants jump to proscribed solutions. He explains how a more collaborative approach produces better results. I’ve already used some of this ideas in my business.
The Clean Coder by Robert C. Martin
This book is similar to ESR’s The Art of UNIX Programming, in that it’s a system of techniques for producing superior code, but not specific to any language. Martin relates several interesting stories from the early days of his programming career which help to demonstrate his ideas. The information about estimating was particularly interesting to me.
Incidentally, if you haven’t read TAOUP, you are really missing out.
Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
I read this at the recommendation of friend and fellow consultancy CEO, Mark Celsor. The authors run a small consultancy which spawned popular project management plaform Basecamp as well as Ruby on Rails. Their attitude is often defiantly contrarian, which makes the book entertaining. Also, there a funny little illustrations throughout.
It’s refreshing to hear someone say that you don’t need to grow your company into a behemoth that you sell on the NASDAQ someday. It’s good to be reminded that your goals are for you to choose.