Jan 2nd, 2013

2012 – Year in Review: Books

By Nick Robison

I spent a lot of time on public transit over the past year, trains, planes, and automobiles. As such, I had quite a bit of time to read. This year I challenged myself to read more fiction, something I don’t normally do. Traditionally, fiction has been hard for me as I’ve found I don’t really engage with emotional content, books that involve stories, facts, and sweeping vistas are more my speed and are more comfortable, still it’s always good to stretch oneself. I also tried to read some of the books that I’ve heard people talking about, so I read the Hunger Games series, the first 3 books of _Game of Thrones, and _some biographies by great thinkers such as Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling.

In total (according to Goodreads) I made it through 48 books of an average length of 371.4375, my appd (average pages per day) was 48.85 (I have a penchant for partial pages). Usually, I read only real paper books, but since I was abroad I relied mostly on my mom’s (now owned by me (possession is 9/10 of the law Mom!)) Kindle, which works great for fiction, but not so good for deeper analytical works, which I read with a highlighter. Unfortunately this year I wasn’t a very consistant reader as I finished my first 34 books before June, when I was commuting 3 hours a day. The longest book I read was Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon _at 1,168.0 pages and the shortest was Julian Barnes’ _Sense of an Ending at a measly 150 pages. As I achieved an almost perfect split of fiction/non-fiction (in terms of book count, not content or page count) I thought I’d do two top lists and entertain you with my faux-critic reviews, you’re welcome.

Fiction (or, maybe real):

  1. Zero Day: A Novel – Mark Russinovich

For those of you who don’t know, Mark is a Senior Technical Fellow at Microsoft and one of the most brilliant computer engineers in the world. This is his first stab at writing something human readable (and if you’ve read some of his code you’ll know how true this statement is) and follows the story of a computer consultant and a gorgeous NSA agent (first hint at the fictional nature of this book) as they track down the authors of a dangerous and almost invisible computer virus. It plays out almost exactly as you’d expect. The plot is predictable, the characters are a little cookie cutter, and the writing is a little cliché but what you end up with is a true geek’s novel full of technical details and actually possible scenarios. His second book _Trojan Horse: A Novel _isn’t quite as good, but still a recommended read for anyone looking for quality geek thriller (I’m sure that’s a real genre).

  1. A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire Book #1 – George R.R. Martin

The first book of Martin’s epic fantasy series is quite possibly his best. The beginnings of an epic struggle for kingship and power told in a style more akin to a Sorkin series then an Ampguard adventure. The writing is rich with visual imagery and thick with the nitty-gritty of internal dialogue and emotional strife. The story unfolds in an episodic nature flipping between multiple characters and geographic locations with dozens of sub-plots seemingly unraveling in multiple directions, which I’m hoping will be resolved at some point in the series. I made it through the next two books and while good, the shine is definitely wearing off and the story is beginning to diverge so much it’s becoming tedious. Also, one of the charms, to me, was the lack of the mystical, spiritual element that so often is used as a stylistic crutch, starting with A Storm of Swords the mystical is beginning to rear its head and I’m not really excited about that. Still, give the first book a read and see what you think.

  1. Dune – Frank Herbert

One of the greatest pieces of science fiction, ever. This was my 3rd time through the book but it had been a few years since I last journeyed to Arrakis. Dune is the first in a three book series that chronicles not only the power dance of a galactic society, but also the rise and role of religion in human experience. A surprisingly deep book, I really enjoyed my using my Kindle this time around as I could make copious marks of interesting quotes or thoughts to reference later. The writing moves quickly, even though it at times seems more interested in the back story and philosophy of the Kwisatz Haderach (the promised ‘messiah’) then the unfolding events of the planet, and Herbert’s writing is spartan enough to not become mired in belabored metaphors or irrelevant details. Through the next two books the overarching saga lost its charm to me but the first book has remained one of my all time favorites. Though, perhaps its time to revisit the later stories.

  1. Cryptonomicon – Neal Stephenson

I first heard about this book while reading an article in the Illinois Law Review regarding the  Principality of Sealand _and data havens. While fascinating, the article was nothing compared to the Stephenson’s (a fellow Seattleite) massive tome which weaves two distinct stories lines, one set during WWII, and one set in the late 90s, into a gripping thriller covering such fascinating topics such as data liberation, encryption, and the power of micro-nations. What first struck me about this book was the quality of the writing. Over time, I’ve become used to the fact that if a book is interesting to me on a technical level (e.g. _Trojan Horse: A Novel) it’s probably of poor wordsmithery; however, Neal is an exception. The characters are well developed, each with appropriate motivations and flaws (something usually lacking in modern fiction), the pacing is excellent, though at 1100 page it’s not a ‘fast’ read, and the underlying research is immaculate. The technical detail of the book is immense with multiple pages devoted to explaining various mathematical points or arcane points of information ownership. If you’re looking for an excellent book that deals with things us geeks like, look no further then either this book, or Neal’s newest work REAMDE.

  1. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

Wow. Just, wow. Full disclosure, it took me two tries to finally get through this book, not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because I kept getting distracted by lesser works. Finally, this year I started over and read the final page towards the end of November (9 months, but at least I did it). Tolstoy has cemented himself as my 2nd favorite author of all time (the first will always be J.R.R. Tolkien), War and Peace was an excellent book but this one, while lacking in sheer dramatic scope, has much more of a personal connection. Tolstoy has an incredible (and at times slightly terrifying) grasp of the human condition. There are points in the book that are chilling in their realism and that seem to be written based on conversations I had with people only days before. For Tolstoy, people are people, each character has their own flaws and weaknesses that they must overcome. No one is perfect, and while the reader may identify with one character over another they identify with their weaknesses as well. The story is not just a tale of love, lust, and purpose, but also a critique of society that holds up quite well over time, in addition, the role of rationalism is given a harsh look and various ideas of nationalism, marxism, and capitalism are each evaluated. There is a depth to the writing that cannot go unnoticed. Time and time again I found myself reveling not only in the beauty of the writing, or the realism of the characters, but at the depth of the story and the lucidity of the various philosophical and spiritual discussions. I cannot recommend this book enough.

Non-Fiction (or, pretending to be real)

5. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) – Mindy Kaling


I love biographies. I love reading about the lives of the other people and hearing their stories of overcoming adversity, understanding how their minds work, and other important things like where they buy their clothes and what types of meat they avoid. My all-time favorite biography is Softwar_ covering the great Larry Ellison. This year I put a focus on entertainers like Tina Fey and Chelsea Handler as many of my friends were reading about them and gave some good recommendations. Out of this group my favorite (by a small margin) is Mindy’s new book. I just finished this one last week, I read it in one sitting, and was entertained the entire time. It’s pretty short and isn’t nearly as comprehensive as Tina’s book, but the writing is light, fun, and quirky and I really enjoyed it. If you’re looking for some light reading give this book a spin, and if reading isn’t really your thing, then I’m not sure why you’ve made it this far through this post but you should check out her new show on FOX The Mindy Project. _It’s probably more your speed.

  1. A Place for Truth – Dallas Willard

A collection of presentations from various Veritas Forums _over the past few years. Overall, the collection has some great sections and some weaker ones. A few of my favorite presenters include _John Warwick Montgomery, Richard John Neuhaus, Jeremy Begbie, Mary Poplin, _and _Paul Vitz. While I don’t agree with every presenter in the book (e.g. Francis Collins) or think everything meets the standards of academic rigor (e.g. Tim Keller) this is an excellent collection of essays covering a wide array of topics. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a good discussion on the fundamental aspects of humanity in the light of advances in robotics, or the role of feminism within world relief, and yet both are covered here. This book is a great start to anyone looking for a topical treatise on current philosophical and scientific discussions. For those looking for a more rigorous or systematic defense of foundational Christianity, consider J.P Moreland’s excellent Scaling the Secular City.

  1. Dealers of Lightning – Michael Hiltzik

The spiritual continuation of Katie Hafner’s _Where Wizards Stay Up Late, _this book blew me away as I was reading. It’s truly mind boggling how much of the technology that fundamentally changed the world was created in this one lab. Likewise, it’s incredible the disconnect between the research lab and the overall corporate structure of Xerox. For me, I really enjoyed reading about brilliance driven to excellence, the mindset of PARC was to bring in the best people, give them what they wanted and watch the magic flow, which it largely did. Looking back I can see a lot of parallels between PARC, the company I worked for, and the University I now attend. Which is an exciting place to be.

  1. Born Again – Chuck Colson

I’m not sure why I picked up this book. I probably read about it on some website and in looking for reading material found it on the Kindle. Halfway through I grabbed a signed copy on Amazon, I had to have it. As most of Colson’s heyday came before I was born/alert to the world, much of the book was brand new to me and really gave me some new perspective on the scandal I’d read about in High School. One of the things I was most impressed with was Colson’s refusal to defame anyone or pass the buck to the higher-ups or blame bad luck. He was open and honest about his faults and failures and places where his actions may have been technically legal, but definitely in a grey moral area. As he describes his conversion and early growth as a Christian I was struck by the bi-partisan nature of his spiritual life, time and time again he emphasizes the closeness of his spiritual brothers in-spite of their political leanings, a subtly that it seems is largely lost in our modern day. While Colson has his share of critics, I think this book does an excellent job revealing his true character and motivation. A great book on a great man.

  1. The Ascent of Money – Naill Ferguson

Not only one of the best economic books I’ve ever read, but also a killer analysis of history. Covering a huge swath of territory, Ferguson does so with a light writing style that moves quickly through even the most complex topics and doesn’t leave the reader gasping for air. On the subject of balance the book does an excellent job of sticking to the facts of the matter and while it’s definitely right of center it pulls no punches in its discussion of greed and power. Genocide is given no quarter and the mechanisms of poverty are discussed within a historical framework. This book guided me into the world of Micro-finance with Muhammad Yunus’ Banker to the Poor _and I’m now working through David Landes’ seminal work The Wealth and Poverty of Nations _an even more in-depth discussion of similar topics. I really enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it to anyone else looking for an introduction to historical finance or the role of money and power within the development of the western world.

So that was 2012, a great year for reading. If you’re interested in the full accounting of books, check out my list on goodreads. 2013 will feature significantly reduced opportunities for personal reading and as such I’ve set my goal for 30 books, which I think I can accomplish if I stay consistant. My to-read list is currently 363 books long and ever growing, but I’m always looking for more suggestions. Anything I should add to the list or any books that really spoke to you over the past year?

Happy readings!