Favourite books of 2018

  • 31 December, 2018

I managed to read 53 books 2018 (up from fifty in 2017) but here follows eleven of my favourite, in no particular order.

Disappointments this year included Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain: I am finding snark and sarcasm to be subject to severe diminishing returns these days, so whilst entertaining at first it got a little too much too fast. I was not altogether surprised that the author is "a proud editor of RationalWiki" too.

In addition, whilst I really enjoyed The Martian back in 2016 I didn't find Weir's Artemis nearly as compelling. Whilst it was a good enough yarn, everything about the protagonist felt somewhat forced and ultimately hollow. Yuval Noah Harari's 21 Lessons for the 21st Century also did not match up with his previous two but still warrants the investment if you enjoyed them.

The worst book I finished this year was probably Nasssim Nicholas Taleb's Fooled by Randomness. I admit this was a guilty pleasure to some degree; a car crash of arrogance at its finest but ironically quite a compelling read if you can stomach it. However, How to Own the World "bests" it that whilst it delivers some fairly sensible financial advice at first the book finally reveals itself as a tedious encomium to gold about halfway through.


Countdown to Zero Day (2014)

Kim Setter

A genuine thriller or cyberpunk "novel", this book tells the true story behind the virus that sabotaged Iran's nuclear efforts. Not content to focus on Stuxnet itself, it discusses the wider issues with regards to the market for exploits, cyberwarfare and geopolitics.

Although at times it goes into somewhat-unnecessary technical detail on the exploits themselves (".lnk" files, anyone?) this should absolutely not deter recommending it to non-technical folks as these asides are not essential to appreciating this fine book. Indeed, this is absolutely riveting and eye-opening, even for someone who is reasonably up-to-date with security issues.

Highly recommended, I ended gifting this book as a number of Christmas presents.


A Year in Provence (1989)

Peter Mayle

Whilst waxing lyrical to a friend about Kate Fox's Watching the English from my 2017 highlights, they immediately enquired whether I had read any of Peter Mayle's Provence series. Answering in the negative, they explained that it uses the authors's renovation of a house in a small village in France as a way of hanging an amusing socio-anthropological yarn. I ended up binge-reading this in a number of wine bars and bistros in the XVIIIe arrondissement guessing that was as good a set and setting I was going to achieve, especially as that would avoid the dreaded Mistral that is personified as a human actor throughout the tale.

Singularly impressed by the quality of the writing ("… by nine o'clock it was already too hot to wear a watch…") and the author's ability to find the «le mot juste», it is an unalloyed joy to read primarily due to the interactions into the natives:

"What’s your best price?" she asked the dealer. "My best price, Madame, is a hundred francs. However, this now seems unlikely and lunch approaches. You can have it for fifty."

The immediate sequel, Toujours Provence, is already high on my queue for January. Mayle tragically passed away in January 2018, but not before quipping "I've often thought the best time to die would be after a long lunch — just before the bill arrives."


Confessions of a Conjuror (2009)

Derren Brown

Until recently, Derren was somewhat of a UK-centric celebrity magician who essentially redefined the public perception of the genre to modern audiences by foregrounding psychological manipulation and spectacle over mere "tricks".

An autobiography of sorts, Confessions is structured around a single performance from the days when Brown was an unknown magician working the tables in a middlebrow Bristol restaurant, and uses this narrative conceit as a springboard to break into rambling yet highly-revealing tangents into parts of his world and mind.

Clearly highly tuned to social dynamics, Derren offers a fair amount of observational humour too:

The Parmesan Moment: when the most animated chatter enters, sometimes mid-word, a cryogenic phase equal in length to the time it takes the waiter to shave hard cheese on to the plates of the erstwhile vivacious diners. No conversation is too mundane, no babble too banal for it to be suddenly classified as anything less than entirely confidential once the rotary grater invades the periphery.

As you might be able to surmise, one hurdle to really enjoying this book is Brown's use of unnecessarily fancy prose which — like Russell Brand's similar pretentious affections — serves only to keep the reader at a distance. It is refreshing that Brown's later works don't appear to have this trait however and his Happy is very much on my to-read for 2019.

Nevertheless, this is a bizarre, intriguing and (almost entirely…) brilliant insight into the mind of a remarkable artist.


On Tyranny: Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017)

Timothy Synder

I first discovered Synder many years ago through his harrowing Bloodlands which describes the Nazi and Soviet killing fields of the Black Sea and the Baltic Republics where both parties were complicit in such atrocities that are so huge and so awful that grief could almost grow numb. However, this year he popped up on an episode of the Sam Harris podcast to promote his Lessons from the Twentieth Century.

This book comprises of a number of short chapters with titles like "Remember Professional Ethics" and "Beware the One-Party State", each purporting to illustrate some angle of the 20th-century to readers in the 21st. At only 128 pages, this slender and easy-to-read volume was engaging enough to enjoyed over a the course of a single beverage.

I am now straining to elucitate exactly why I liked this as a whole but in hindsight it seemed to hit home at the right time and was motivational in terms of re-affirming confidence in ones established beliefs. It certainly makes some mordant criticisms of our approaches to current world events, including remarking that whilst our generic cynicism makes us feel alternative, given this is what everyone else is doing we are actually part of a morass of indifference. The positive (but "adolescent") connotations of the doctrine of disruption are also given a knock with the observation that:

The man who runs naked across a football field disrupts, but he does not change the rules of the game.

… and for those with more of a penchant for privacy-related topics, Synder reminds us that totalitarianism is not necessarily the clichéd all-powerful state but rather the erasure of the difference between the private and public life: we are free only insofar as we exercise control over what people know about us and in what circumstances they come to know it.


Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams (2017)

Matthew Walker

We remain shockingly ignorant of how we spend at least a third of our lives and how much it affects the other two-thirds. But perhaps more worrying are the severe physical and mental health considerations of foregoing sleep as well as the degree a deficiency prevents us from perceiving said negative effects in a kind of bizarre "Dunning—Morpheus" effect.

Sleep (or rather; the "science of sleep") was definitely a meme of 2018 popular science and garnered a lot of attention in the podcast world — so what stood out about this particular contribution?

Indeed, in terms of specific advice there nothing here you haven't come across before (regular schedule, no screens, cooler room, avoid sleeping pills…) this book rises above the rest in that it isn't a step-by-step manual (isn#t "advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn't…" anyway?). In contrast, Walker foregrounds explanations about dreams, REM & NREM sleep, the evolution of sleep, jetlag, the history of sleep as well as the ever-changing relationship between society and the act of sleeping. There is unfortunately not enough causal data on a population level at the moment to make definitive statements, but enough highly correlative stuff and thus ironically ripe for the pop science treatment.


Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974)

Robert Pirsig

After at least a decade, I finally got around to reading this. I am not sure why I had avoided it up until now, perhaps worrying such a "hypercanonical" book in this space would come across as highly-derivative given that I've read so many books that occupy the same space or have otherwise taken it as inspiration.

However, it was probably the acquisition of an actual motorbike this year that prompted an ironic purchase (along with the associated Haynes manual) and was quickly rewarded by its take on the philosophy of science and other prosaic or romantic thoughts.

Reviewing such a book in any detail in late-2018 seems a little odd (do we need another "review" of GEB on Hacker News?) so I will only add that I not found myself associating my thoughts on maintenance closer to the Sutherlands than our protagonist and my copy is now irredeemably littered with highlighted quotations for which it is impossible to find a favourite. However, he's one, perhaps, suitable for the upcoming year:

You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it's always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.


The Dig (2007)

John Preston

This novel dramatises the events behind the discovery of the Sutton Hoo treasure in 1939 which included a "ship burial" and a wealth of undisturbed Anglo-Saxon artefacts. Eerily similar to when I was reading the author's A Very English Scandal, I started out not aware it was based on a true story but some very slightly incongruous or unnecessary facts encouraged me look up the background online.

A quick, short and enjoyable read, recommended to anyone interested in history or a portrait of antebellum England.


The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014)

Becky Chambers

This is one of those books whose appeal and interest is curiously in its flaws. Or: if this was a better book it would be curiously less compelling to recommend. To get it out of the way up-front, Chambers clearly has a particular target audience in mind and this regrettably means a certain amount of pandering, wish-fulfillment and compromises on behalf of the art of the novel.

For example, one discovers that in the Android is actually black and it seemed clear to me you weren't really meant to notice and thus raise an eyebrow at one's own prejudice when it is faux-casually revealed to you. There, of course, is nothing really wrong with these sorts of games — or perhaps the book's overt use of non-standard pronouns — but this sort of oft-laboured detail ends up simply tripping up the (good!) core narrative rather than offering delightful background colour, at least violating the principle of Chechov's Gun and getting in the way of the plot; these social elements are invariably not "world-building" as it is in, say, episodic and early Star Trek or Stargate is.

Despite all of the above, I would still highly recommend this to anyone remotely-interested in modern sci-fi; indeed I found its loosely-associated followup almost as compelling and the third installment on my 2019 list once I can stomach the cheeky "get 'em hooked" drug dealer pricing strategy of the trilogy.


The Road to Wigan Pier (1937)

George Orwell

Defying strict classification, this book is split into two quite distinct parts; the first discusses the living conditions among the working class in Yorkshire whilst the second half is a long and rambling essay on a myriad of subjects including socialism, politics, his middle-class upbringing.

A huge fan of Orwell, I also read his Burmese Days (1934) too, finally finishing my entire journey through his oeuvre. However, unlike his other works, Orwell uncharacteristically comes across a bit cuckoo in this second part:

It would help enormously if the smell of crankishness which still clings to the socialist movement could be dispelled. If only the sandals and the pistachio-coloured shirts could be put in a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaller, and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly!

Curiously, this second part was almost entirely cut by an original editor. It is not, however, without a bit of humour or even entirely unrelatable:

I am a degenerate modern semi-intellectual who would die if I did not get my early morning cup of tea and my "New Statesman" every Friday.

For fans of 1984 or Animal Farm I could not unreservedly recommend this but if you have enjoyed any of his splendid essays then it is definitely worth checking out.


How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics (2018)

It appears that widespread adoption of psychedelic drugs, at least for therapeutic purposes, always appears to be just another year away, but 2018 definitely represented a convergence of literature on the topic.

Pollan's work stands above the rest with its compelling explanation of the substances' storied histories, the author's own personal experiences with it whilst weaving in the neuroscience without putting the reader at distance.

As somewhat of a paean to such "cures", I would find myself unable to recommended this unreservedly to all and sundry, but most will find the combination of science, spirituality (from the perspective of a skeptic) and narrative adds up to something far more than the sum of its parts.


American Kingpin (2017)

Nick Bilton

Subtitled "Catching the Billion-Dollar Baron of the Dark Web", this gripping tale tells the story of Ross Ulbricht, better known as the owner/operator of the Silk Road online black market. It describes the background of the creation of the site, the fascinating and at-times completely immoral & illegal activities of the law enforcement sent after him, all the way through to his arrest and subsequent trial.

Like Countdown to Zero Day reviewed above, you probably couldn't make a believable film about episode in our history without requiring something on the scope and quality of 2010's The Social Network. Eerily reminiscent or suggestive of the film itself, this book is perhaps at its best when critically dissecting Russ' personality, describing the bizarre antics happening and getting somewhat weaker as it moves into the more-humdrum court proceedings.

Regardless, neither fans nor detractors of cryptocurrencies or the ethics of online black markets should be deterred from checking out this superb work.