books

What I Read in 2016

table of contents

In the first part of 2016 – when I was traveling – I read a handful of books via Overdrive, but sometime in February my library card expired so that put a stop to that. But once I was back I got back in the habit, and I’d meant to start writing posts about some of the books that I read, but that didn’t happen, so I decided to write up this summary of what I read this year. (I was inspired to start writing about what I’m reading by Derek Sivers’s book notes, so the style of this may shamelessly resemble his style.)

The List

Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks (2007)

Unfortunately, I’d only had a passing knowledge of Oliver Sacks (from hearing him on Radiolab) before he died in 2015. When he died the first place I read about him at length was from my friend Abir’s Facebook post, which I think was a link to a NYTimes piece, from where I jumped into The Atlantic’s reading list.

When I started traveling I decided to read his books, and the first one that I found available on Overdrive was Musicophilia, which is about music and the brain. Each chapter basically goes through a patient he’d seen that has had neurological ailments related in some way to music or sound. I’d heartily recommend it to anyone interested in music or “pop neurology”. (Open Library)

Watchmen by Alan Moore (1986)

I’d read Watchmen once before (maybe 10 years ago), and I can’t remember what spurred me on, but something reminded me of the book and made me want to read it again, so I did. The movie is good, but there’s so much more depth in the novel. The snippets and documents between chapters completely make the whole book. It reminded me a bit of how immersed I used to feel in video games I played was I was younger (and sort of makes me want to go back and play some of them). If anybody has any recommendations for more good graphic novels, please let me know. (Open Library)

I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter (2007)

In 2007, Hofstadter put out I Am a Strange Loop as a modern update to – and more accessible version of – GEB. It’s much clearer and easier to get through than GEB, but also loses something by sacrificing the depth and structure of GEB. Regardless, this is a great read that I’d recommend. For anyone interested in linguistics I also really enjoy Hofstadter’s lectures on YouTube about analogy and categories. (Open Library)

The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac (1958)

My friend Colin lent me this about a month ago, and I absolutely loved it. He said he thought I’d like it since I’d started doing some traveling and backpacking, and most all of Kerouac’s writing revolves around traveling and life on the road in some sense. I loved it so much that I recommended it to my dad, who quickly bought and read On the Road, which I’m waiting to borrow from him. (Open Library)

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)

Somewhat shamefully, I’d never read The Hobbit (and still haven’t read Lord of the Rings) so when I was in Kuala Lumpur I read it. There’s not much I can say that hasn’t been said about the book, other than that I wish I would’ve read it a lot sooner. (Open Library)

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks (1985)

Since I’d loved Musicophilia so much earlier in the year, I’d been wanting to read more Oliver Sacks, so when I inherited The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat I started reading it pretty quickly. Like Musicophilia, each chapter recounts a patient that Sacks had seen, around a variety of different subjects, the first being a man who mistakes his wife for a hat. The writing isn’t quite as strong as musicophilia, but the stories are great regardless. (Open Library)

The Gunslinger by Stephen King (1982)

I stole a handful of my brother’s books that were left in my parents’ basement, mostly Stephen King books. This one, which is the first book in The Dark Tower series, was the first one I’ve read. I enjoyed it and I’m going to keep reading the series, but it was a little slow. I’m not quite sure what to make of it, but for whatever reason it left me really excited to read more in the series regardless. (Open Library)

Hegemony or Survival by Noam Chomsky (2003)

I’ve only started listening to and reading some of Chomsky’s interviews and essays in the last couple years. Hegemony or Survival is the first book of his that I’ve read. From Wikipedia:

Chomsky’s main argument in Hegemony or Survival is that the socio-economic elite who control the United States have pursued an “Imperial Grand Strategy” since the end of World War II in order to maintain global hegemony through military, political and economic means. He argues that in doing so they have repeatedly shown a total disregard for democracy and human rights, in stark contrast to the US government’s professed support for those values. Furthermore, he argues that this continual pursuit of global hegemony now threatens the existence of the human species itself because of the increasing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Drawing historical examples from 1945 through to 2003 to support his argument, Chomsky looks at the US government’s support for regimes responsible for mass human rights abuses (including ethnic cleansing and genocide), namely El Salvador, Colombia, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, South Africa and Indonesia. He also discusses US support for militant dissident groups widely considered “terrorists”, particularly in Nicaragua and Cuba, as well as direct military interventions, such as the Vietnam War, NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, Afghan War and Iraq War, in order to further its power and grasp of resources. In doing so, he highlights that US foreign policy – whether controlled by Republican or Democratic administrations – still follows the same agenda of gaining access to lucrative resources and maintaining US world dominance.

It’s a dense book, and I’m still digesting it, but it’s mostly a more in-depth version of what you’d expect from a Chomsky interview. I think if I re-read it at some point I’ll probably find a lot more that I didn’t absorb on first read. (Open Library)

Casting Fortune by John M. Ford (1989)

Probably about 15 years ago, my great grandma was moving out of her house, and we were free to take whatever we wanted from the house, so I took a fantasy story anthology. The first story was Green is the Color by John M. Ford. I only ever ended up reading a handful of the stories in the book, but Green is the Color became one of my favorite fantasy stories. It took me a long time, but a couple years ago I finally got around to ordering some more John M. Ford books, and this year I finally read this one. (And it only somewhat counts because Casting Fortune is made up of 3 short stories, one of which is Green is the Color. I really just wanted an excuse to re-read it.) A couple years ago I found out that Ford lived in Minnesota, but died in 2006.

All of the stories in Casting Fortune take place in a shared (between authors) fantasy world called Liavek. I haven’t read any stories other than Ford’s, but the setting is my favorite part of the stories. I would definitely recommend for fans of short fantasy stories.(Open Library)

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (2009-2010)

I can’t remember where I first heard of Haruki Murakami, but everything I heard about him seemed to indicate that I should read his stuff. It was worth it; I think 1Q84 is my favorite book I read this year. The plot is really complex and weird, revolving around a cult, two parallel realities, and lots more (it’s tough to mention much without giving a lot away). I thought the ending was a little disappointing but overall I loved it. I’d definitely like to read more Murakami in 2017. If anyone has recommendations for his other books (or similar stories from other authors), I’d love to hear them! (Open Library)

The first half of American Gods by Neil Gaiman (2001)

I’d wanted to read Neil Gaiman for a long time, and American Gods was one option available in Overdrive was I was traveling. Unfortunately, I only got about halfway through it when my library card expired. But I loved what I’d read so far, so I’m planning on starting again at some point, and I’d also really like to read other Gaiman. (Open Library)

The first half of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky (2010-2015)

I read some of HPMOR, and enjoyed it a lot, but didn’t finish it for some reason. I’m planning on coming back to it at some point. It’s a fanfiction of Harry Potter where his aunt marries a scientist, and Harry is raised in a happy and loving household. He goes to Hogwarts and tries to understand magic using the scientific method. (Website)

What If? by Randall Munroe (2014)

I spent most of my New Year’s weekend watching the Downton Alley marathon on TPT 2 (interspersed with a couple Sherlock episodes), and broke it up by reading What If?. I’d bought the book when it came out in 2014, read a couple chapters, stuck it in my bathroom for toilet reading, and never read another page. So I started it again on New Year’s Eve and was able to get through it in a day. (If you haven’t heard of What If?, check out the blog. The premise is pretty thoroughly covered by the subtitle: “Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions”.)

Suffice it to say, this book is awesome – and a quick read – and if I was tasked with getting anybody more interested in science, I’d give them this book. Check out the table of contents if you’re intrigued. (Open Library)

What I want to read in 2017

Right now I’m reading The Best American Short Stories of 2013, which my grandma lent me. Over Christmas my uncle lent me a book about Emil Zátopek, a Czech distance runner. I also got the second Dark Tower book, The Drawing of the Three, for Christmas. My friend Keith recently lent me the Lonely Planet guide to Peru.

There are a few other books I recently inherited: Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett, Society of Mind by Marvin Minsky, and A World of Ideas by Bill Moyers.

I recently picked up the Unix-themed Humble Book Bundle of ebooks.

There are some writers that I’ve never delved into that I’d like to: Camus, Dostoyevsky, Gwen Ifill, and Neal Stephenson, to name a few. I’ve been lucky to have been gifted and lent a lot of really great books lately; if anybody has any recommendations, I’d love to hear them!

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