2013 reading list
Everyone seems to be releasing their holiday gift guides, so I might as well enter the fray with my own. Here are most of the books I read in the past year with recommendations/comments inline. This list is modeled on Aaron Swartz's excellent annual Review of Books. Following his convention, books I thoroughly recommend are in bold. Books marked with an asterisk are as yet unfinished.
- Hard Landing: The Epic Contest for Power and Profits That Plunged the Airlines into Chaos
A history of the airline industry via Adam Goldstein. One of the best non-fiction books I've read. A business thriller.
The US airlines' tale is a story in two acts: the stable growth in the regulated climate, and the bloodbath in the wake of 1978 Airline Deregulation Act that whittled twenty major carriers down to three. More than I could have imagined, airline transport is an economies-of-scale game, and you don't want to be a smaller airline facing down an always-paranoid larger competitor.
- A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World
- Hefty and wandering but consistently interesting.
- Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software
- An explanation from transistors to the OS of how computers work. I skimmed the chapters for areas I knew, but this filled a few important holes for me.
- Weather of the San Francisco Bay Region
- Treat your friends to endless fun weather facts! This thin book will give you a good run-down of how the Bay Area's topology creates the weather patterns we know and love and create Twitter accounts for.
- The Code of The Woosters
- P.G. Wodehouse is one of the English language's funniest writers. This is a good introduction.
- The Signal and the Noise
- Nate Silver ran 538 for the duration of the 2008 and 2012 elections. Somewhere during that time he found the time to write a pop stats book. It's not a classic, but makes for interesting reading. Via Jocelyn.
- The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways
- The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways came together in a remarkably short time. Well worth reading, though could be cut in half. The author's reflections on his personal journey are entirely skippable.
- Part of the sci-fi canon.
- Portfolios of the Poor: How the World's Poor Live on $2 a Day
- What it says on the cover.
- Born to Run
- A lightweight exploration of ultrarunning, barefoot running and the Tarahumara tribe in Mexico's Copper Canyon. The author's writing style grates on me and the scientific arguments he makes seem selective and suspect.
- A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life
- Craig Venter is the first person to have decoded the human genome and an all-round interesting fellow.
- Kelly: More Than My Share of It All
- Autobiography of Kelly Johnson, the famous Lockheed aircraft designer. Not compellingly written. If you want a solid history of the environment that produced marvels like the U-2 and the SR-71, read Skunk Works by Ben Rich instead.
- The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory
- I figured I would stop making fun of string theory until I properly understood it, at which point I could pick back up where I left off. I'm not finished with this, but Brian Greene is a good science writer.
- Softwar: An Intimate Portrait of Larry Ellison and Oracle
Oracle is the world's second-largest software company. But how did they come to occupy that spot? What exactly do they do? What's the deal with all the ads with fighter jets? Those questions and more answered in this surprisingly readable biography.
One of my favorite aspects of this book is the inline right-of-reply. Ellison gave a ton of access for this book. In exchange, he got not the right to nix certain parts but the right to add footnotes where he felt the book didn't portray things right. It makes for an interesting back-and-forth and feels like a good balance for books like this where access is key.
This would probably get a bold font if it weren't so niche.
- The Art of Doing Science and Engineering
- How to succeed in technical work. By Richard Hamming, who isn't broadly known but is kinda a big deal. (He founded the ACM.) Hard copies are fiendishly expensive — get the rough-around-the-edges Kindle edition. Via Patrick.
- The Making of the Atomic Bomb
- An exhaustive history of the atomic bomb. I'm a fifth of the way through and we're still only at 1920.
- Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire
- Most people know the early origins story of Microsoft — flying to Albuquerque and watching the BASIC interpreter run for the first time — but the history after the Seattle move (at 11 people) is more interesting. Books like this also highlight well the long slog that went into supposedly-overnight successes.
- The Selfish Gene
- More filling holes in my knowledge.
- A Dangerous Place: California's Unsettling Fate
- An exploration of California's brittle water systems and their propesity to be catastrophically destroyed by a variety of natural disasters. The final third is kinda weird and skippable.
- Barbarians at the Gate
- A history of the then-largest leveraged buyout in history. The book is overly long and detailed and has meticulous backstories for each new banker who pops up in the plot. I abandoned it halfway through.
- Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water
- A history of the settlement and irrigation of the American West. Details LA's development and its water wars with the Owens Valley, the construction of the Hoover Dam, the growth of the Bureau of Reclamation and much more. Reisner is a compelling writer.
- Joel on Software
- A kindle ebook of Joel's blog.
- For God, Country, and Coca-Cola
- A history of Coca-Cola. You probably don't know very much about the making of the world's largest brand. Via Dervala.
- The Best Service is No Service: How to Liberate Your Customers from Customer Service, Keep Them Happy, and Control Costs
- A business book on building good customer service. Like most business books, it should be 1/5 the length.
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
- Robert Pirsig's novel musing on the philosophy of quality.
- The Art of Travel
- A weird, slightly rambling introspection by Alain de Botton. Has a fun format with each chapter combining personal anecdote with a historical traveling buddy like Wordsworth or van Gogh. No startling insights.
- The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
- Amazon is one of the most interesting tech companies in existence, but there's a surprising dearth of reading to find on it. (Anyone have recommendations?) This book has interesting details, but the commentary lionizes Bezos to a painful degree. Worth reading but with your skeptic hat on.
- On the Road
- Not being from these parts, I read classic Irish literature rather than classic American literature growing up. I'm backfilling now. On the Road is in that class of books that makes me want to quit my job and ride freight trains around America. (Maybe I'll compile a separate list of that growing set of books.)
- The Lore of Running
- A 1000-page reference tome on everything you might need for running training, from 5ks to ultramarathons. Frequently makes reference to people running "only" eighty miles a week, which made me feel pretty lazy. Via Chris.
- The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal
- A history of computing by way of J.C.R. Licklider, the MIT and Harvard computing communities he led, ARPA (where he worked for many years), and Xerox PARC. Took me a while to get through it but thoroughly worthwhile. I haven't read Where Wizards Stay Up Late, but Jason recommends that too. Via Patrick, who has bought up most of Amazon's used supply.