I read nonfiction. I basically only read fiction when it is philosophically motivated and influential, a historical landmark, or when it contributes to some sort of context I want to have, like if I am going to a country in which it takes place. Therefore, I wouldn’t take my fiction commentary too seriously.
Taleb’s often endearing, but frequently overbearing (and in the midst of key passages, no less) ego, absent-minded disorganization, indulgent and liberal analogizing, amid other avoidable errors, are not enough to extinguish the brilliance of his original thesis. Overlap with The Black Swan is relatively (surprisingly) small. A must read for those interested in nonlinearity talk, in the vein of Jervis’ System Effects, but without the rigour and with, to steal a phrase from a Howard Zinn jacket, “a shotgun blast of revisionism.” I would still start with the Black Swan, but stopping there would be self-punitive. This is not a technical work and relating technical matters is not Taleb’s forte. His forte is effulgence.
Thinking Fast and Slow
The pitch-perfect, comprehensive introduction for laypeople. An antidote to Gladwell, but so much more. High school textbook material, in a good way, but also recommended for lake-side reading. Basically what textbooks should be, bestowing definitions, examples, and evidences for various cognitive biases, without any of the usual eye-glazing roadblocks. I would go so far as to say asocial science triumph.
Elegant, crisp, and lucid prose. Astounding in arrangement at every scale — word, sentence, paragraph, story, work — with expansive sublime commentary through inference. Instills resonant heartbreak.
Bird of Chaman, Flower of the Khyber: Riding Shotgun from Karachi to Kabul
Matt Aikins intrepid journalism in long, narrative form. Full disclosure, I worked directly with (and under the tutelage of) Matt at the magazine he ran during his final year of Queen’s University. A talented writer, he has traveled extensively in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria…Are those hotspots sufficient? He has interviewed warlords, crossed through dangerous checkpoints, ducked gunfire, investigated torture, exposed the murder of Afghan civilians by US forces, spent days with Syrian bomb makers, the list goes on and on. He’s written for Harper’s, Rolling Stone, the Atlantic, et al. To my mind, the premier conflict journalist under forty writing in the English language.
Elements of Poker
The starting point for any aspiring poker professional looking to enact a lifelong tuning of their mental game.
Sneaking into the list, is effective, interesting scholarship and well organized, informative history, overlaying an intriguing narrative. What puts Greenblatt a cut above is his uncanny ability to lay out in plain language the nuts and bolts of competing philosophical premises, in their context. With this power comes some responsibility, and Greenblatt errs on hyperbole a smidgen at times. Another must for those touring the history of ideas.
He was the best living writer of English nonfiction until he wasn’t. A man who wrote in a wide variety of formats, Arguably is a collection that plays to his strengths. His reviews outclass his long-form work, such as the infamous and popular god is Not Great, to the point where it is, to my mind, unfortunate that it is the book he is most well known for.
In this collection he is the epitome of freethinker, navigating everything from animal rights to Benjamin Franklin studies.
His review of an apparently forgettable Mark Twain biography is a study in critical dissection. His prose are crafted to sever. He balances detailed consideration and pithy wit, but not delicately, because he is seemingly never in danger of being hysterical or hyperbolic, while simultaneously ravaging the banal, the lazy, the haphazard, the uncritical, and the misinformed. A unique collection whose only fault is its exclusion, despite dozens upon dozens of entries (ie plenty of room), of his 2006 Slate column on Slobodan Milosevic. That piece, again highlighting my own bias, contains the following favourite: “Beware of those resentful nonentities who enter politics for therapeutic reasons.”
Incredible writing like this does not litter Arguably, it forms the ground on which everything else stands.
Unique, virtuoso, and perpetually intriguing.
Simply, for prolonged stretches, not achieving a state of being compelling. Not a page turner. One has a hard time identifying with any characters, much less the majority of those who might be roughly pigeonholed into the role of protagonist as their portion of narrative is limelit.
Wallace is a prose artist, a classic case of, pardon the cliche, perfecting the rules in order to break them — with spectacular results. Coinage and spin, technically playful. If Wallace, as a 1,000 page novelist, were to be rendered into a basketball player, coaches would unanimously assert “he does all the little things.”
There is simply no way Jest cannot be characterized as self-indulgent. But that is fine, because indulging Wallace is surrendering to something majestic. My preference to be rendered a hapless page-turner, ignorant to my surroundings, was never fully actualized, particularly in the first 400 pages, as important in my mind as any other 400.
On the other hand, for what one supposes Wallace was trying to do, he, in my present, humble estimation, executed it near-flawlessly.
The Signal and the Noise
A noble effort. The world is better that this book was written. Nate Silver was not the hero some wanted, as far as literary capacity, but he is the hero they got.
The Idea of Decline in Western Civilization
A survey of history that suffers from a lack of corroboration in the assassination of various philosophers with whom we can infer the author brooks philosophical disagreement. An otherwise excellent survey, certainly worth studying, drawing from a breadth including W E B Dubois and Nietzsche.
The filthiest book I have ever read, bar none. Its black type on white page is make you look over your shoulder on planes filthy. Truly pornographic.
Crescent and Star
American Stephen Kinzer (who wrote the also recommended All the Shah’s Men) has written an informative work that suffers from narrative injections and unabashed romanticism for his adopted state.
The worst books I read in 2013
I feel bad about my neck - Nora Ephron
This book humoured me less than I did it.
Bone in the throat
Not the elsewhere brilliant, Renaissance flaneur-on-camera Anthony Bourdain’s best. Far superior to Ephron’s offering, though.