Books read in 2018February 14, 2019
This is the third time that I re-cap every book I read in the preceding year. I guess this makes it a tradition. Like last year, I did not write as I read, so a lot of the nuance and the detail that I would have liked to include in this post was lost to some unreachable corner of my brain. Hopefully that part doesn’t become a tradition.
Trying to outdo my 2017 goal of reading 18 books, I bumped up the 2018 number to 24. I didn’t make it even close, but I did read more books than the year before, hitting 19. I did better on the “stop only reading dude’s work” front, too: from 3/18 to 6/19. Still have lots of room to improve in 2019. Anyway, on to the books:
Seeing Like a State - James C. Scott
I first heard of Seeing Like a State through Quinn Norton; specifically, on a podcast episode where she discussed norm formation in cities and the history of policing, among other topics. On Twitter, I asked her what to read if I wanted a bit more depth, and this was her recommendation.
This book was tough reading. It is one long big argument against top down solutions and in many ways it’s logic feels very Hayekian. It discusses the tragic ways governments try to simplify the world to make it legible, optimizable, and utilitarian, and in the process strip away a lot of the things that make it interesting and worthwhile to humans. Using examples from the past few centuries, and from all around the world, Scott shows how high modernism, with its austere emphasis on simplification and with its disregard for local context, ends up building solutions that seem beneficial from the state’s point of view but are in fact damaging to the population. The wide-ranging examples, which include XIX century scientific forestry in Germany, Lenin’s centrally planned soviet vision, the collectivization of villages in Tanzania, and Le Corbusier’s grand urban plans for Brazil, all demonstrate how big technocratic plans tend to result in unexpected perverse incentives. Definitely worth reading, but for a quick intro to the idea, I’d recommend Venkatesh Rao’s “A Big Little Idea Called Legibility”, which does the book a lot more justice than I did in a few sentences.
Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders
This one was a gift from Hannah’s grandma, so I started reading with little knowledge of what I was getting into. Initially, I thought it would involve a lot more history. I also thought it would involve a lot more Abraham Lincoln. The novel deals with the death of Lincoln’s son and the time he spends in the intermediate world between ours and the afterlife. There are hundreds of characters, each with a stranger backstory than the next, which makes the reading experience quite confusing. A bunch of quotes from newspapers/letter collections from the time are peppered in, but most of them deal with very specific events surrounding the kid’s death and only a bit about Lincoln’s personality. There were a few sections focused on the war, race relations, and Lincoln’s life, but I wish there had been more.
I’m sure it will make a great movie - apparently Nick Offerman bought the rights.
Sapiens - Yuval Noah Harari
By now, everyone has heard about Sapiens. I first heard of it on various podcasts right after it was published in English, and the arguments set forth by Harari in the book seem to have percolated into the mainstream since then. It was exactly what I expected. If anything, it was an easier read. The main thesis is that Homo Sapiens got to where we are today by leveraging our communication skills, building larger and more complex societies than any other animal. Harari argues that complexity arises from the belief in what he calls “shared fictions:” the imagined reality of gods, nations, and corporations as opposed to the objective reality of rivers, trees, and lions. Harari explains this through historical perspective, starting with evolutionary biology: humans as simple animals and Sapiens as just one of the many human species solidly in the middle of the food chain. Like other human species, Sapiens developed tools and fire but, according to Harari, language is what set us apart from other animals. Chimps can warn each other that a lion is coming, but can’t strategize over how to go hunt a bison on the river, or gossip about who in their group is not carrying their weight. Large-scale cooperation depends on these mechanisms, and language allowed us to grow into bigger groups. While animal behavior is driven by genetics and nudged by the environment, humans can transmit ideas and behaviors via culture and stories - bypassing DNA and allowing for dramatic shifts within a generation.
Continuing along the historical path, Harari discusses the agricultural revolution, arguing that wheat domesticated us instead of the other way around. This seems counterintuitive at first, but he posits that through agriculture people could have more kids and feed more families during tough times, even though it took more work in the long-run. Once the big families were there, the only way to feed them was with grains, so they could not go back to the old system of foraging. He calls this the luxury trap, a harsher lifestyle for individuals but a better outcome for the species. With agriculture also come more complex societies, and the rise of imagined order to bind people together. (James C. Scott’s new book Against The Grain, covers some of this in more depth.)
The book quickly moves from the evolution of small shared fictions to full-fledged empires. Based on the intensity of the online discussion I’ve seen, it seems like Harari hit a nerve with his commentary on how the imagined order crystallizes into the shared ideas of money, religion, and nation states. It’s almost as if all the other ideas in the book weren’t as compelling. My favorite part of the book was the discussion of social constructs and inter-subjectivity to explain group formation, along with the description of the last few centuries of history (i.e. the rise of mercantilism, capitalism, and the industrial revolution). For a more rigorous look into that topic, I’d point you to Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, and Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money.
Towards the end, Harari gets a little self-helpy and goes into predictions of the future. This section turned me off, and was probably meant to act as set-up for his follow up, Homo Deus, which I don’t plan to read.
Sapiens has been heavily criticised for being overly broad and for trying to use the same lens (shared fictions) to explain too many phenomena, but I have not yet been offered another book that contains such an extensive survey of human history. Overall, I’d say it’s worth reading.
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom - Cory Doctorow
After reading and thoroughly enjoying Walkaway last year, I wanted to read more of Doctorow’s fiction. In his essay “Coase’s Spectre” he mentions that Down and Out was his book about “consciousness uploading,” so I knew I had to read it. Unexpectedly, the Magic Kingdom in the title is that Magic Kingdom. The book’s twisty plot line (which I won’t give away here) revolves around what Doctorow calls deadheading and the implications of being able to make copies of people’s minds as a way to make death obsolete, but, much like Walkaway, it also incorporates interesting aspects about organizational behavior and management theory. I wish the book had elaborated more on whuffie and the reputation economy around it, but it was a super fun read… so much so that I read it in two days!
Founders at Work - Jessica Livingston
This is one of those books that everyone in the Silicon Valley/San Francisco bubble insists everyone should read, so while I was excited to read it I was also pretty skeptical. The main point Livingston tries to get across is that successful entrepreneurs are just people - an idea I’ve been obsessing over for the past few years as I meet more and more people working on interesting problems. Founders is full of stories that by now are part of SV folklore, from Woz scratching his own itch and building the first Apple computers, to Max Levchin’s demo at Buck’s, to Ev stumbling on Blogger. In some ways, the stories feel dated, almost as if there should be a V2 of the book interviewing a new generation of founders, but every single one has a lesson to learn. I compiled a few comments and pullout quotes in this thread as I read it. This is a book I’ll probably revisit whenever I go down the startup road.
Information Doesn't Want To Be Free - Cory Doctorow
Riffing on Stewart Brand’s famous line, Doctorow describes this book as a guide for artists to navigate the world of digital content production, pushing for intellectual property reform and new models for monetization that benefit creators. From the get-go, it appeals to makers to publish content online for free (leading by example, you can access the full text on archive.org!) and to monetize via alternative paths. The book works through the intricacies of the copyright system as it is today, intending to build up a framework for creators to make decisions that will benefit them, instead of benefitting the larger participants in the ecosystem. Doctorow guides us through the absurdity of digital locks, the unfairness of revenue sharing schemes with tech platforms (making me feel somewhat guilty about working at Apple, albeit on a different branch), the international politics behind copyright, and the differences in how regulation affects individuals and industry. Doctorow exposes the incentive structures of the media business, and shares a few personal stories of dealings with publishers and editors, asking the reader to question the power dynamics that shape the media market. We have not yet caught up with the implications of systems where marginal costs are near zero, and this book lays out a possible path forward where creators retain more leverage over their work.
Chaos - James Gleick
I originally added this book to my list after hearing Robert Sapolsky call it “the most influential book in [his] thinking about science”, which needless to say is a rave review. Chaos, as its name implies, is a deep dive into the origins of chaos theory, the branch of science that studies non-linear dynamic systems, and its rise in the second half of the 20th century. In this book, Gleick investigates the development of tools and theories that help us understand complex systems and explores the correspondence of the scientists that created them.
Until the advent of chaos, and especially until the arrival of computers that could be used for research, scientists were used to the idea of writing off problems that were not linear and deterministic - anything beyond a couple of interacting variables was treated as being out of reach. This encompassed a whole class of problems, such as Newton’s three body problem in classical mechanics, which don’t have closed form solutions. For a non-scientist, Gleick does a great job of presenting very complicated abstract topics about complexity in an accessible way for the layperson. He makes recursive fractals, logistic maps, strange attractors, and other non-linear systems seem simple, even if counter-intuitive.
It was surprising to see how science has become much more interdisciplinary since the book was published in the late 80s, and how little some things have changed. If you know of a book that could fill in as a sequel to cover the next 30 years of progress, I’d love to read it.
Candide - Voltaire
Expectations play a considerable role in how we experience the world. If you read a book that’s often brought up in conversation, and you’re somewhat familiar with its story or its themes, you’ll be preconditioned to look for those themes, and to pick up on those threads as you read it. Picking up a book that you’ve never heard about allows you to read it with a beginner’s mind - with no expectations. That was how I approached Candide, a book that I grabbed from Dog Eared Books’ free book bin while walking on Valencia with Hannah. She read it in high school and didn’t remember much of it but thought I would enjoy it.
Candide is the product of the age of enlightenment, which was top of mind in 2018 with the release of Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now. I had lined up Gottlieb’s The Dream of Enlightenment as part of an effort to learn more about the period and philosophy in general, but I decided to read Candide first on a whim.
Candide touches on many philosophical currents but is mostly a critique of Leibnizian theodicy: the idea that all bad things are actually good in disguise, that an omnipotent benevolent god would not have put evil in the world if it weren’t somehow a way to achieve the best possible outcome. Needless to say, I do not subscribe to Leibnizian theodicy. In fact, I remember coming up with related questions on the problem of evil on my own as a kid, and getting unsatisfactory answers from my teachers. To deliver his critique, Voltaire subjects his revolving cast of characters to death, rape, theft, and deceit, challenging their optimism and framing it as delusional. Eventually they find their way into a world of simple work, away from vice and poverty, and the book ends tensely with Candide pointing out that while they’re in a better place now, it’s still on each one of them to “cultivate their garden” — that we’re on the hook for our own destinies.
Surprisingly, Candide is extremely cosmopolitan. There are over 100 cities/countries mentioned, scattered all over the world (yes, I counted) and characters constantly lose track of each other, remarkably finding each other in the most unexpected places. An interesting read today, but must have been a whirlwind when it was released in 1759.
WTF? What's the Future and Why It's Up to Us - Tim O'Reilly
Part memoir, part manifesto, WTF is a book about the Silicon Valley way of thinking, the ecosystem in which these ideas came into being, and guesses as to how they might transform our world. Through his role as editor, publisher, and investor, O’Reilly has earned himself a privileged vantage point into the inner workings of the technology industry, and the book reflects that. It is full of tidbits on the market dynamics that have shaped the past few decades, some learned through direct observation, and others from conversations with many of the Valley’s household names. Much to my liking, the book repeatedly uses maps and language as metaphors to describe the development of new technologies, the rise of open source software, the dominance of platforms, and more.
O’Reilly’s tone is optimistic, especially for 2018. He argues that the technology industry is uniquely positioned to help us move away from the currently favored strategies of cost-cutting that hurt society, and instead focus on widespread value creation. A good chunk of the book discusses the problematic side effects of tech-enabled capitalism. Invoking a rogue superintelligence not dissimilar to the one from the paperclip maximizer thought experiment, O’Reilly points out that we already live in a world determined by a machine with misguided goals — a collective superintelligence we call the market. Continuing his analogy of the rogue AI following the wrong fitness function, he questions the dubious origin of optimizing for shareholder value. In his view, the obsession with shareholder value has led the financial markets to become disconnected from the real goods market, questioning why a company’s goal should be to return cash flows to its investors, instead of supporting overall welfare by finding solutions to human problems, furthering a certain vision of what the world should be, or simply improving the lives of the employees who work in those companies.
Ultimately, the point of O’Reilly’s book is that the future doesn’t have to be the same as the present - that humans can pick new rules, and that we can design the world around us to build a better society. That it’s up to us.
Consider The Lobster - David Foster Wallace
I picked up this collection of essays after reading “Tense Present”, which I had seen Jon Evans recommend a long time ago. I got around to reading it last July, and it was as good as advertised. Each essay is totally different (except that they each include hundreds of footnotes, DFW style). “Tense Present,” which the book rebrands as “Authority and American Usage” for example, is a 20k word essay about the dictionary that discusses hegemony through language, how we assign authority to individuals and institutions via standardized language, and how language shapes our thoughts. Reading it in perspective 15+ years after it was written, in our Orwellian political environment, makes one reconsider the games of reality warping and language creation that politicians constantly play. Similarly,“Host” seems more interesting today in the context of Alex Jones and the whole deplatforming conversation than it was in 2005 when it was first published.
The Namesake - Jhumpa Lahiri
This one I read with Hannah. I first read of Lahiri’s work after stumbling on her essay “Teach Yourself Italian” a few years ago, and it quickly became one of my go-to examples of great writing about in-between identities. The novel touches on some similar themes. It is a series of vignettes depicting an immigrant couple from Calcutta and their kids at different stages of their lives as they assimilate into the East Coast of the US. Lahiri focuses on the emotional tugs of living far away from one’s family, growing up from neither here nor there, and the clash of one’s customs and beliefs against those of the surrounding environment. Obviously, as an immigrant to the US, these themes felt very close to home, even though the characters’ Bengali culture is so different from my own.
Lahiri does a great job of showcasing raw family interactions, and while some of the plot points felt trite, it was a very emotional read.
Radical Markets - Eric Posner and Glen Weyl
In Radical Markets, Eric Posner and Glen Weyl (P&W) present a set of ideas that would introduce market-like incentive structures into many aspects of our lives. They, like me, believe markets are the best way to organize society and lament that while our society is supposedly organized by competitive markets, it truly isn’t due to structural distortions. In a nutshell, they believe “[…] that by creating true competitive, open, and free markets, we can dramatically reduce inequality, increase prosperity, and heal the ideological and social rifts tearing our society apart.” That’s an ideal I can get behind, but the devil is in the details. Like most work in non-empirical economics, there’s a wide gap between theory — as presented by P&W — and practice. The ideas are intriguing but I remain a skeptic.
Much of P&W’s analysis is inspired by William Vickrey and Henry George, two economists known, respectively, for their work on the use of auctions to induce people to reveal their subjective valuations and the link between growth, rent capture, and inequality. I was familiar with both of them, but surprisingly (in a good way), I was otherwise unfamiliar with much of the other literature the book presented.
The book is structured in five chapters representing five distinct issues and proposals to correct them. What follows are extremely summarized explanations of the problem/solution pairs explained in the book, so if you want to read a bit further without actually reading the book, I’d suggest to check out their website, which is surprisingly complete. In essence they see:
- private property as an unfair monopoly, and suggest a Common Ownership Self-Assessed Tax (COST) as a way to optimize the utilization of private assets while socializing part of the gains.
- 1-person 1-vote democratic systems as unjust, unresponsive to the interests of minorities, and easily manipulated by special interests. They suggest Quadratic Voting (QV) as a solution.
- migration as a way to grow the pie for everyone, proposing a Visas between Individuals Program (VIP) as a bottoms-up way for locals to select and sponsor migrants for the benefit of everyone involved.
- reduced competition as a consequence of financial consolidation of corporations, recommending a ban on mutual fund diversification within sectors to spur innovation and improve consumer welfare.
- all the value of the digital economy flowing to wealthy cosmopolitan cities, where big tech companies are located, advocating for more explicit markets for personal data to return some of that value to the suppliers of said data.
The proposals come with a clear libertarian tint, but each could be associated with either right or left depending on who brings them up, and the specific implementation details. P&W manage to bring up characters that would regularly be described as ideological opposites to back up the same argument (think Friedrich Engels and George W. Bush arguing for the same outcome, for instance), and they repeat the feat of finding common ground regularly throughout the book.
At times, their explanations are guilty of invoking skyhooks, brushing away crucial details, or taking for granted that a proposal can be instituted at once instead of incrementally. For example, in their first chapter on COST, they start off their argument with: “Let us assume for the moment that auctions are conducted via smartphone apps that automatically bid based on default settings.” I’m interested in seeing how they solve for “default settings” in this thought experiment. The choice of such defaults isn’t neutral.
All in all, I think P&W’s main contribution here is not this specific set of ideas or implementations, but that they started a conversation. Over the past few months, Weyl and a large team of contributors have been putting together a conference on the topic. I’ve enjoyed following the online dialogue about how we can use market mechanisms to face the political economy challenges of the present and the future, and I’m pretty excited about the early signs. Keep your eyes open for more of this.
The Commuist Manifesto - Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
This one was assigned as part of a course on modernity I took on Coursera. I read it alongside a few other pieces from that time, including other essays by Marx, and found them to be insightful but hard to understand outside of their historical context. At a very high level, Marx’s early work’s main argument is that work is full of contradictions, and that by working in the modern industrial setting, humans alienate themselves from their true nature.
The Manifesto is a call to the workers of the world to revolt and change the system from within. Interestingly, I found it not to be too prescriptive, specifying only a few demands around taxation, private property, and government provided services to put us on the road towards utopia. Another point I found interesting was that the manifesto addresses the bourgeoisie to do the revolting, exhorting the urban middle class to convince the peasants and workers that they need to stand up to the aristocracy, not via political channels but through revolution. It’s the urban middle class that is asked to expose the class differences and the class struggle. With their manifesto, Marx and Engels hope to tear away sentimental veils and show that modern human relations can be better understood through the lens of transactional, economic exploitation, offering what they see as a better way. In their post-revolution world, thanks to the newly implemented policies, there are no classes and no class struggle. The ideas are compelling, but I was surprised by the lack of clarity and the few implementation details discussed.
I plan to read more Marx, and more Marxist thought, so if you have any good recommendations on books or essays I shouldn’t miss please let me know. Obviously, good critiques are also welcome.
In The First Circle - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
If you follow my blog, you’ve surely read the links section, where I regularly share essays and podcasts I’ve enjoyed. There, Econtalk is frequently present. Last year, the podcast’s host, Russ Roberts, decided to do a book club on In The First Circle. Not only did I decide to follow along — I also convinced Hannah to read it with me. I enjoyed it much more than I would have if I had read it on my own, so I’m hoping Russ keeps the format going this year with a new book, and maybe I’ll talk Hannah into reading that one, too.
In The First Circle is the first uncensored edition of a novel that was originally published in 1968. It follows three intertwined storylines in Soviet Russia: a diplomat kicks off the book with a treasonous phone call, a prisoner in a labor camp/research facility (inspired by Solzhenitsyn’s own experiences) works on developing voice recognition technology to uncover the identity of the aforementioned diplomat, and lastly the government officials and political figures, going from the petty prison guards all the way up to Joseph Stalin, keep the perverse system running.
The book is full of ethical dilemmas, from how to deal with decaying human relationships and the arising conflicts in the closed quarters of the prison, to the consequences of developing technology that will harm innocent people. It also makes some interesting points about the organizational behavior of teams, often highlighting the burden that comes from cooperating with morally corrupt regimes to keep oneself alive. Characters struggle with themes of identity, of in-group vs. out-group, of moral relativism and objectivity. Perhaps more than anything else, it debates the meaning of freedom, and reminds us again and again that in some sense the people imprisoned in the camps and in the gulags are more free than those playing the game of politics or the civilians in the outside world.
Through its myriad of plot lines, it shows that even though individuals across the ranks understand the system to be broken, and would like to change things, their self-interested actions still lead to self-perpetuating emergent behavior. As the reader, you’re constantly switching back and forth between the inner dialogue of the zeks and the conversations between them and their keepers, which given the sheer number of characters makes for a confusing but rewarding read.
The Value of Everything - Mariana Mazzucato
I first heard of Mazzucato’s book through Dietrich Vollrath’s blog, and found the idea of questioning our definition of value compelling. Soon after, she showed up as a source of inspiration in a book I was reading, O’Reilly’s WTF, and then when I heard that the two of them were going to have a conversation at Bloomberg Beta I immediately signed up. As expected, the talk was great, and I was lucky to get a signed copy there.
Value is a mindbending idea once you notice that it’s not actually tied to prices. Economics 101 teaches us how prices arise from individual agents’ decisions on willingness to pay for/willingness to sell goods and services. From that viewpoint, we measure value based on the last trade that clears the market. Mazzucato’s book doesn’t try to come up with a new definition of value, but instead invites us to study the many definitions people have used over the centuries, and to question why we’ve settled on this one. I really enjoyed the beginning chapters, where she grapples with the history of economic thought, explaining how theories of value have changed over time, starting with the rise of mercantilism, and moving on to the physiocrats, the classicals, Marx’s labor theory of value, and most importantly to the neo-classical marginalists. It is the viewpoint of this last group that is now taught in schools everywhere as the unquestionable way to determine value. Things are worth what people are willing to pay for them at the margin. This is very different from Marx’s and earlier thinkers’ views - that an item’s value was based on the value of its inputs: the raw materials, and the labor put in to transform it. In Mazzucato’s view, the preeminence of the marginalists’ view changed value from being an objective measure to a subjective one. What matters today for pricing is what individuals believe about a good or a service, not something intrinsic.
A main topic in the book is the dividing line between value creation and value extraction. An artisan sculpting a piece of wood creates value. A firm pushing for longer patents or harsher copyright laws, might be just seeking rents. Mazzucato’s critique here is that in the last few years we’ve moved to a world in which it is easy for value extraction to pass as value creation, rewarding extracting activities and ignoring productive sectors For example, Mazzucato describes how the shift to include financial flows into calculations of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) shaped the incentives of Western economies in the second half of the XX century and beyond. By including financial services in GDP, and thus annointing its associated services as valuable, governments started rewarding both the value-producing and value-extractive processes the financial industry came up with, but one kind was much easier to scale than the other. The author posits that by shifting the balance from a real goods market to a predominantly financial market, we’ve kicked off feedback loops that produced inequality and actually hurt the value-producing segment of the economy.
The book points out the inconsistencies of GDP as a metric again and again, and specifically calls out role of government in innovative industries as an under-reported portion of value created. Mazzucato has investigated that topic deeply in her book The Entrepreneurial State, but includes a scathing discussion here too on how industries like technology and pharma exploit this arrangement for their own benefit, making it seem like they are the innovative ones when really a lot of the basic research behind the scenes was simply unaccounted for in the national metrics. Mazzucato calls for a restructuring of these relationships, and for a rethinking of the incentives behind how we see government’s role in innovation.
Mazzucato’s ideas are worth reading not just because they are not mainstream, but because she doesn’t try to give us answers, but questions. We disagree on many points, but her book makes us wonder how else we could measure the success of our economies, and that’s laudable in and of itself.
High Growth Handbook - Elad Gil
Tech Twitter went crazy when this book came out in mid 2018, and hearing the high praise of so many people in my network, I went ahead and bought it. Shows that someone working on marketing for Stripe Press is doing their job well. The book positions itself as a guide to scale startups, meaning that it is not immediately useful for me, but as it explicitly states at the beginning it is meant to be used as a reference when tackling specific topics, so I tried to build a mental map of what themes were covered in it as I read. Much of the content is available online for free, so if you’re curious I’d recommend you at least take a look at the interviews, which are chock-full of (sometimes conflicting) advice coming from broadly different perspectives, making them the most valuable part of the book for me. Much like Founders at Work, I’ll surely revisit this one in a couple of years.
Infomocracy - Malka Older
Over the past few years, it has become well known among my friends that I believe nation states as we know them are going to disappear within our lifetime. Some make fun of me for it, while others just roll their eyes. Reading Older’s fiction on the topic made me even more sure that it is bound to happen. I wrote a few thoughts about the book in this Twitter thread as I read.
Infomocracy is the first of a trilogy. While many of the ideas presented are far-fetched, the narrative and world-building is spotless. The author goes through great efforts to ensure the pieces fit together nicely, which is one of my biggest qualms with sci-fi. The plot is set in a not too distant future, where nation states have been replaced by the new global order of microdemocracy. People divide themselves into centenals, jurisdictions of 100k people freely choosing among (mostly) open-borders communities based on which one best represents their interests and beliefs, self-organizing through global elections. It has Tiebout sorting written all over. The political intrigue around the election is not nearly as interesting as the characters’ in-depth philosophical debates about the paradoxes of democracy, nations, and governance, but I enjoyed both. Older’s worldly knowledge of history and geography seeps through the pages, with her characters coming from very diverse backgrounds and carrying deep personal stories from around the globe. In this cyberpunk future, a supranational organization called Information runs a panopticon over society, as well as the election process, monitoring the behavior of citizens and governments worldwide. The story revolves around the upcoming election, and the groups fighting to become the Supermajority, the government with most regions in its control. It follows a small government campaign worker and an Information spy as they uncover a plot to sabotage the election day. Infomocracy is a fun book, an obvious response to the political climate of the past couple of years, but somehow still positive. It strikes a very optimistic tone about the future while not holding back on things that could (and do!) go sideways. For a taste of what Older’s writing is like, and an intro to the Centenal Cycle’s world, you can check out[ her short story “Narrative Disorder”, or keep reading below - I read her Null States last year, too.
Null States - Malka Older
Following right after Infomocracy, and set in the same environment and with the same characters, the second book in the series had more story lines running in parallel, and an even more global view. The second book is set a couple of years after the first one, and deals with the process of introducing the micro-democratic system to new locations. It also discusses how certain areas of the world with a very strong nationalistic presence didn’t buy into the system in the first place, and how the various governance systems interact. This time around, characters are much more skeptical of the benefits of Information, and question whether playing along is a way for their local culture to be assimilated into a global one. Themes of colonialism and identity preservation are recurring on the main story line, which is a thrilling mix of international political conspiracy and content manipulation. I personally preferred the first book, but Null States was great too, and it set up a lot of pieces for the last book in the series, State Tectonics, which I’m currently reading.
Infinite City - Rebecca Solnit
This one was a loan from my manager, Amy. I’ve yet to return it, though! She knows how excited I am about maps and history, and during a conversation I mentioned I wanted to read it, so one day she showed up at the office with it for me. The book’s introduction is wonderful, invoking Calvino and Borges and the very obvious abstraction about the map not being the territory. That short piece was probably my favorite of the volume. The rest of the book is structured as a series of essays from various authors, each one considering a different layer of San Francisco and accompanied by its own artfully created map. Starting with the precolonial indigenous people of the area, and moving up through different points in history, the book covers a wide range of San Francisco subcultures in surprising ways. It was a great book to follow my tradition of reading at least one book about SF each year after Kamiya’s 49 Views and Talbot’s Season of the Witch.
I recently learned that Solnit worked on a similar project for New York City, called Nonstop Metropolis, and of course I’ll have to read that one, too. It’s already on the list!
And that’s it! Also, like last year, I spent some time reading technical books:
And reading some stuff that I just got through halfway:
- 1776 - David McCullough
- The Dream of Reason - Anthony Gottlieb
- The Path - Michael Puett
In 2019, instead of aiming for 24 books I will aim for (300 pages) * 24 = ~7200 pages. We’ll see how that goes, but I’m already behind! In the meantime, if you have a book recommendation, or have thoughts on my reviews above, let me know!
Photo: Chicago Cultural Center, by me. Previously posted on Back To The Midwest.
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