Sunday, January 17, 2016

My 2015 in books : A self-indulgent year in review

I guess I read a lot in 2015, due to some combination of having the time and needing the sanity. This is a list of some books I got a lot out of, ordered approximately by when I read them.


Slouching Towards Bethlehem (Joan Didion)

I read this classic collection of essays while visiting California. I ended up moving here, although I wouldn't draw a causal connection. Didion's work conveyed 1960's California to the rest of the country with the clarity of a bizarre dream (or something like that; let Louis Menand tell it). Hers is a California defined by its origin stories -- both real and imagined.

Excerpt that I guess I bookmarked at the time:
Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself. Although now, some years later, I marvel that a mind on the outs with itself should have nonetheless made painstaking record of its every tremor, I recall with embarrassing clarity the flavor of those particular ashes. I t was a matter of mis-placed self-respect.

The Elementary Particles (Michel Houellebecq)

I guess one thing I learned this year is that weird, reactionary French intellectuals can be just as fun as weird, progressive French intellectuals. The fun is in the French-ness and the intellectualism. Houellebecq has a particular diagnosis of what's wrong with modern life, one that I think will resonate emotionally with many who live it, even if his implied prescription seems worse than the disease. (In this, his first book, that disease is not Islam. The links between his earlier and later works are explored in the Adam Gopnik piece that introduced me to the book.)

A few sentences from opening the book basically at random:
Was he depressed, and did such a question have any meaning? For years he had seen posters appear in the area, asking people to be vigilant and warning them about the National Front. The fact that he had no opinion on such a subject one way or the other was already a worrying sign. Depressive lucidity, usually described as a radical withdrawal from ordinary human concerns, generally manifests itself by a profound indifference to things which are genuinely of minor interest. Thus it is possible to imagine a depressed lover, while the idea of a depressed patriot seems frankly inconceivable.

The Shadow of the Sun (Ryzard Kapuscinski)

Kapuscinski's essays were one of a few books I used this year to feed my Africa nostalgia, even as I have no real claim to that (collection of) place(s) and no immediate desire to return. Kapuscinski was a Polish foreign correspondent in a cold war era Africa of modernization programs and coups. His stories blend the real, the lyrical, and the can't-quite-be-real. His ability to go anywhere and get a story out of anyone reinforce to me why I'll never be a journalist. (A more recent entry in the genre of outlandish Africa correspondent that I also enjoyed was Anjan Sundaram's Stringer about his time as perhaps the only American journalist in Kinshasa, where he lived alongside locals after quitting his Math PhD.) 

Opening lines:
The Beginning: Collision, Ghana, 1958 
More than anything, one is struck by the light. Light everywhere. Brightness everywhere. Everywhere, the sun. Just yesterday, an autumnal London was drench in rain. the airplane drenched in rain. A cold wind, darkness. But here, from the morning's earliest moments, the airport is ablaze with sunlight, all of us in sunlight.

Leaving the Atocha Station (Ben Lerner)

This obviously autobiographical novel about a young poet drinking and lounging his way through a fellowship in Madrid absorbed me. The lesson, appropriately enough for my new Silicon Valley life, essentially amounts to "fake it till you make it." The fate of those equally self-absorbed and destructive poets who in fact didn't make it is left unaddressed.

Promo blurb picked more or less at random from the book's front matter:
"A second-millennium portrait of the artist as a young man that is one of the truest (and funniest) novels that I know of by a writer of his generation.... On careful reading, Leaving the Atocha Station turns out to be both an experimental and a self-consciously traditional book.... Lerner is simply reminding us of what, thanks to the classical novel, we know about real life at its most intimate, and reminding us how little that has changed." —Lorein Stein, The New York Review of Books

The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (David Graeber)

Towards the middle of this year, I took a position despite having a really bad feeling about the mutual "fit" between me and the job--a feeling that was quickly borne out (I've since moved on and am very happy thank you). For whatever reason, I decided to celebrate having committed to that to that job by buying a shiny book of social theory from one my favorite bookshops in the Mission. This book is fun, not too heavy, and appeals to the Social Studies concentrator in me who still often finds it baffling that people are willing to take the social systems they operate within as both natural and value-neutral.

Section I marked at the time that I can't fully reconstruct in my head without the preceding context:

Thesis: There appears to have been a profound shift, beginning in the 1970's, from investment in technologies associated with the possibility of alternative futures to investment [in] technologies that further labor discipline and social control.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Carol Dweck)

2015 was also the year I learned that I'm maybe not too good for "self-help" books. I skimmed The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People and How to Win Friends and Influence People and found the principles of each eerily mirrored the working style I'd absorbed during my time in consulting (the difference between these two is that Seven Habits expresses how to actually get things done--i.e. the internal work--and How to Win Friends expresses how to sell and convince--the external work.)

Against those two books, Mindset is both more legit -- Carol Dweck is a psychologist at Stanford -- and a better expression of the Silicon Valley ethos. Dweck contraposes two mindsets: the first "fixed," in which every failure is a sign of innate insufficiency vs. the second "growth" in which failure represents a learning opportunity and be overcome with effort. The notions that "grit" is the secret to success in life and that kids should be praised for trying hard not for their innate characteristics were things I'd heard before, but Dweck has been a pioneer in the space. The tech industry is a "growth mindset" kind of place, for reasons that I'll get into a little bit more in the next entry below.

I don't have this book in front of me, but here's a link to a recent piece in which Dweck worries that people have perhaps taken the "growth mindset" thing too far.

Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How it Defines Our Lives (Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Sharif)

The original motivation for my current post was that I wanted to write about this book. But I decided that to just write about this book might not be fair to all the other good books I read last year. So now, 1200 words later, here I am. This isn't one of my favorite books of the year for the quality of the writing, and the book doesn't necessarily drive its theme fully to the logical conclusion that I'd like. But on the basis of this book and his public statements (mainly this piece) I've come to the conclusion that Mullainathan is one of the most important voices writing today--even if a lot of what he says should come as nothing new to anyone but an economist.

The book draws parallels between the scarcity individuals face when we're busy, tired, hungry, or broke (and yes, those conditions often correlate). The intent, at least in part, is to build sympathy and understanding of the economically "irrational" decisions poor people make under pressure, by analogizing them to the types of crappy trade-offs we all make when faced with stress in everyday life (e.g. "Why didn't I start that document three days ago when I knew it was due tomorrow?") A key conclusion of the book is that people in situations of scarcity (especially the poor) would often benefit from having additional "slack" available -- both in terms of mental bandwidth to make better decisions, and material flexibility such as reasonable credit. (I wish the authors had driven this to examine the complete ineffectiveness on these terms of the American social safety net--which intentionally makes it stressful, time-consuming, and dispiriting to receive public benefits).

Excerpt from the conclusion that frustrated me because I, in fact, totally do think this way:

People overlook bandwidth. When you're busy and must decide what to do next, you might take into account the time you have how long it will take you, but you rarely consider your bandwidth. You might say, "I only have half an hour. I will do this small task." You rarely say, "I have little bandwidth. I will do this easier-to-accomplish task."

Overall, then, a theme of my year has been that conditions of abundance tend to feed creativity (and conditions of over-optimization tend to stifle it). Silicon Valley is a "growth mindset" kind of place -- people think new things can be done at a greater rate because of some combination of the weather, the beautiful nature, the Teslas, and the venture capital all around them. That's a large part of why I like it here, and a large part of why I'm often tempted to believe that everyone is self-deluded. Here's to more good reading in 2016.

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