2020 Book List

Published on 30 SEP 2020

I tried this at the end of last year, but found that I had forgotten a lot of the books from earlier in the year. I figured I would try a quarterly reading list post to make it a bit more current, and in this case perhaps you need a quarantine book.

January - March

Jonathan Kern - NPR Sound Reporting

I’ve had more motivation recently for Parity’s podcast and decided to do some reading to improve my skills. A lot of this book focuses on journalism and reporting (indeed, it was published before podcasting existed). Nonetheless, it made me consider how to shape the information in the podcast into stories that will be more engaging.

It was also comical to see all the burdens of pre-internet reporting:

Some reporters and producers travel with satellite phones, which can allow them to send and receive real-time audio. On a breaking story when time is of the essence, or during a natural disaster when you may not be able to find a reliable source of power, a sat phone can be a lifesaver. “All sat phones are different,” says Mayer, “but basically you point it at the sky, and when it sees a satellite it lights up and you can see the amount of signal strength you have, and then you go through a dialing process. And it’s either connected or not connected.”

Maggie Nelson - Jane: A Murder

Maggie’s collection of poetry and diary entries about the murder of her aunt Jane (before Maggie was born).

Frederick Taylor - The Berlin Wall

I finally picked up a history book relevant to Berlin (The Shortest History of Germany has been sitting on my shelf for months). I’m interested in the fall of the Wall (the USSR in general, but the Wall’s collapse is geographically and temporally bounded) and this book was a good history lesson, but focused primarily on its construction.

After (or while) reading this, I interviewed someone who lived here when the Wall came down. Posting this sentence publicly is my way of committing to writing it up and posting it.

Robbie Arnott - Flames

One of the best messages one can receive is, “I have a book for you.” A good page turner fantasy that takes place in Tasmania, which is so far away from Europe that the story might as well be true.

David Epstein - Range

I read this after listening to David’s appearance on Kara Swisher’s podcast. David also wrote The Sports Gene, which I did not read but probably should have. The book argues that early specialization is either a myth or not so advantageous, and that the world favors generalists who spend more time exploring a breadth of skills and interests before specializing. I agree with him, but it matches my own personal experience. Like most pop non-fiction books, I found it too long. By 80% of the way through, I was mostly thinking, “OK, point taken.”

Paul Auster - In the Country of Lost Things

Another book recommendation about a woman living in a dystopian future city.

Maggie Nelson - The Red Parts

Maggie never lets me down. With so many one-star reviews on Amazon, I knew this would be a good one. The book follows Maggie’s experience through the trial for her aunt’s murder.

Falling out of a story hurts. But it’s nothing compared to the loss of an actual person, the loss of all the bright details that make up that person. All the flashing, radiant fragments that constitute an affair, or a love. If there has been a betrayal, you may find yourself holding each of these fragments up to a new light and rotating them there, watching each one grow an unwanted shadow. I found myself there.

Anna Kavan - Ice

Ice has been on my list for a few years, since I read the Diaries of Anais Nin. Anais was fascinated with Anna Kavan, who repeatedly rejected Anais’s attempts at friendship. The writing was trippy and visual. I should probably read it again because I feel like there is a deeper story than what I got from it, but I read the first 100 pages in a state of severe jetlag.

Andrei Bely - Petersburg

I noticed this book at a bookstore shortly after my own trip to St. Petersburg, and on the back cover saw that Nabokov called it one of the masterpieces of the 20th century. Reading this was fun, not only because of the book itself, but because I immediately knew that it was an influence on David Foster Wallace. From the first page where a servant refers to his master as “Himself”, to the masterful use of geometry, to the translator’s style of footnotes that could be an explanation on how the original Russian had a pun that just does not translate or some weakly connected anecdote about Pushkin, this book (or at least, this translation) was post-modern before modernism was a thing.

Apollon Apollonovich was born for solitary confinement. Only his love for the plane geometry of the state had invested him in the polyhedrality of a responsible position.

Meanwhile, the little old man was already ascending the staircase which was carpeted in red. As they ascended, his legs formed angles, which soothed his spirit: he loved symmetry.

A man of all three dimensions had entered the room. He had leaned against the window and had become a contour (or, two-dimensional), had become a thin layer of soot of the sort you knock out of a lamp. Now this black soot had suddenly smoldered away into an ash that gleamed in the moonlight, and the ash was flying away. And there was no contour. The whole material substance had turned into a phonic substance that was jabbering away.

Maggie Nelson - Shiner

Maggie’s first published book of poetry. I’ve been on a real Maggie tear the last few months. This collection was good, but I can tell she’s improved as a writer since she wrote it. I’m not complaining, I like seeing a writer’s progression.

James Carse - Finite and Infinite Games

Another gift from a friend. There must be something about me that says, “give that guy a book.” My first impression of Finite and Infinite Games was, “damn, this guy has read a lot of Wittgenstein.” The book addresses many topics that I confronted in the later years of my cycling, but also abstracts and moves it into more general principles. It’s a nice counterpart to Winning: The Psychology of Competition, coincidentally also published in 1986, coincidentally the year I was born.

To be playful is not to be trivial or frivolous, or to act as though nothing of consequence will happen. On the contrary, when we are playful with each other we relate as free persons, and the relationship is open to surprise; everything that happens is of consequence. It is, in fact, seriousness that closes itself to consequence, for seriousness is a dread of the unpredictable outcome of open possibility. To be serious is to press for a specified conclusion. To be playful is to allow for possibility whatever the cost to oneself.

Anais Nin - Henry and June

This book was the first unexpurgated volume that I read and focuses on the start of Anais’s relationships with Henry Miller and his wife June, as well as when she starts psychoanalysis with Dr. Allendy. Like the rest of Anais’s diaries, I couldn’t put it down. But, I didn’t quite feel right reading it, since it was published 10 years after her death and contained material that was not in the main Diaries because some of the people in it asked not to be included. Nonetheless, Anais’s relationships in 1932 were cutting edge by today’s standards, and damn can Henry Miller write a love letter.

Rainer Maria Rilke - The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

I picked this up at a book swap because I loved the first sentence (“So this is where people come to live; I would have thought it is a city to die in.“). The book is split into two parts - two notebooks - each of exactly 130 pages (so German). I had trouble connecting with the first half but really got into the second.

He was a poet and hated the approximate; or perhaps he was concerned only with the truth; or it annoyed him to be taking along as his last impression the thought that the world would continue to go on so carelessly.

April - June

These three months were an interesting time for me. At work, we launched the Polkadot Network in May and I’ve been a workaholic, a cliche but apposite analogy, as it’s taken a toll on my health and life in general, with other parts of my life pushed to the sidelines.

Many days reminded me of cycling, feeling like a stage race, except that I never knew when the last day would be. I was always amazed how a body could churn out world class performances when a few hours prior it struggled to get out of bed. I’ve felt that way mentally a lot of days: exhausted, lethargic, but spotting opportunity and suddenly pulling my mind together to deliver. I’m not saying I never made mistakes, just that I’m amazed that I didn’t make more.

With so much focus on work, I didn’t make it through as many books as I like, but I’m hoping to make that up in the second half of the year with some time set aside to rest.

Tove Jansson - The Summer Book

A friend recommended this a long time ago, but I just didn’t connect with the characters. I’m writing this too late, I actually don’t remember that much of the book.

May Sarton - Journal of a Solitude

One of my favorite books that I decided to re-read. I love books that grow with you, and I definitely connected with this one in a new way than the first time I read it, and hope to in a new way again later.

My own belief is that one regards oneself, if one is a serious writer, as an instrument for experiencing. Life — all of it — flows through this instrument and is distilled through it into works of art. How one lives as a private person is intimately bound into the work. And at some point I believe one has to stop holding back for fear of alienating some imaginary reader or real relative or friend, and come out with personal truth. If we are to understand the human condition, and if we are to accept ourselves in all the complexity, self-doubt, extravagance of feeling, guilt, joy, the slow freeing of the self to its full capacity for action adn creation, both as human being and as artist, we have to know all we can about each other, and we have to be willing to go naked.

Charles Bukowski - You Get So Alone At Times That It Just Makes Sense

Yup.

Sofya Kovalevskaya - A Russian Childhood

Autobiography of Russian mathematician who was the first woman to get a doctorate and developed some groundbreaking theories that are still over my head.

David Foster Wallace - E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction

One of the classic DFW essays on U.S. television and advertising.

And make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit “I don’t really mean what I’m saying.” So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: “How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.” Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its subject is, when exercised, tyranny. It is the new junta, using the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.

Honoré de Balzac - Lost Illusions

“Don’t even get me started on Balzac,” said DFW in the above essay. This book was a slog, I struggled through the first half but got more into it at the end. There are gems in here, and an immature, self-absorbed adolescent goes to Paris to chase women and money only to be exposed as a phony story is always a classic, but this one was tough to stick with.

Your Lucien is not a poet, he has the poetic temper; he dreams, he does not think; he spends himself in emotion, he does not create.

Anais Nin - Incest

I decided to read another unexpurgated diary, hoping for a page turner like Henry and June, but this was not as good. It had a lot of filler material and was poorly compiled. Some of this was cut from the original published diaries because of the people it discussed, but some of it was cut because it was well edited.

The writer is the duelist who never fights at the stated hour, who gathers the insult like another curiosity, spreads it afterward on his desk and fights then, alone. Some people call it weakness. I call it postponement. What is a weakness in a man is the glory of an artist, his quality. What I spill in talk or acts rarely is restituted in writing. What is preserved, collected, is what explodes later in propitious solitude. That is why the artist is the loneliest man in the world: because he lives, fights, wars, dies, is reborn alone, and always alone.

Vladimir Mayakovsky - Backbone Flute

Poetry collection (including of course, Backbone Flute) from Mayakovsky. It was good but I read it at a time that I was fully engaged with work and I think I need to go back and re-read it when I can be more present.

Olga Tokarczuk - Primeval and Other Times

A Nobel Prize winner, the writing was good but the short chapters (“like MTV videos”) didn’t work for me, as I never felt like I got into one of the characters. One interesting aspect of this book was that there didn’t really seem to be a protagonist, bad shit just kept happening and God got less and less powerful over time.

July - September

Another few months where I didn’t get much reading done. The launch of Polkadot continued full steam into the end of August. Even though it consumed so much time, it was a huge success and it feels good to see years of hard work pay off. I was also traveling a lot and was back and forth between Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, so I never had the time being settled to relax and focus on a book.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky - White Nights

A short story of a couple meeting in Petersburg, good reading for the one-year mark after my trip to St. Petersburg.

Do you know that I love now to recall and visit at certain dates the places where I was once happy in my own way? I love to build up my present in harmony with the irrevocable past, and I often wander like a shadow, aimless, sad and dejected, about the streets and crooked lanes of Petersburg. What memories they are!

Camilla Russo - The Infinite Machine

The first of many books coming out soon on the history of Ethereum.

Harry Dodge - My Meteorite

Harry is the husband of my favorite author, Maggie Nelson. So when my friend told me to read it, of course it went right to the top of my list. It didn’t connect with me like Maggie’s work does, but still it was the most introspective book I read in this period, and maybe I just wasn’t open enough to it.

When a drummer engages with a drum the substance that she addresses is the space between contacts with the drumhead. What you’re organizing then is the fullness of absence. And apparently the hits are called “attacks.” Most of drumming is organizing the time between attacks.

This hope for rebirth, this outlier, it just tags along, a flimsy raincoat at the slaughterhouse of truth: everything dies, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Whether we rise or not is crucially beside the point, beside every point — because of course dust rises again.

Emanuel Derman - Models Behaving Badly

This book was OK, not my favorite book on math but a few good insights. I liked his way of breaking down the difference between a theory and a model and how they approach things from opposite sides. But often times I felt like the author was just showing off his background in particle physics rather than addressing key points.

Alexander Griboedov - Woe From Wit

The story of someone who returns home after living abroad and is ridiculed for pointing out the backwardness of society.

The composite Grumbler, hoarsely and off-key,

singing one tune only: How it used to be,

failing to observe about himself,

that he is old and sitting on the shelf.

Show us these great men, where do they keep state,

these fathers of our country we’re to emulate?

Virginia Eubanks - Automating Inequality

This book is a good follow up from Weapons of Math Destruction about the problems of algorithmic systems. The problem is not so much their application, but rather that they are trialed on low-income groups and often reduce individual agency rather than increase efficiency.

In my most pessimistic moments, I fear that we are winning the fight against mass incarceration at just the historical moment when the digital poorhouse makes the physical institution of the prison less necessary.

David Foster Wallace - Everything and More

This is the second time I’ve read this book. The first time, I was struggling to brush up on my college math and had to focus on the mathematics, and still only vaguely understood it. Over the last few years, I’ve been exposed to more abstract math and that made this book a joy to read because I was able to focus on the story and the tensions within mathematics for several hundred years. This book is a masterful example of how to write about a technical topic in an engaging way.

The abstract math that’s banished superstition and ignorance and unreason and birthed the modern world is also the abstract math that is shot through with unreason and paradox and conundrum and has, as it were, been trying to tie its shoes on the run ever since the beginning of its status as a real language. Re which, again, please keep in mind that a language is both a map of the world and its own world, with its own shadowlands and crevasses — places where statements that seem to obey all the language’s rules are nevertheless impossible to deal with.