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Favourite books from 2019

I read 37 books this year – average for me, and only possible because I have no hobbies or social life.

My top five books of the year were:

The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah
This book resonated with me because I harbour dreams of chucking everything in the bin, moving to a remote community and growing my own veg. Since I have no practical stills whatsoever I live the life vicariously through the writing of others. In this book, a family makes the move to remote Alaska and get much more than they planned for.

Kane and Abel, by Jeffrey Archer
It’s a tale of life, love, money and revenge; skillfully woven through generations of history. None of the characters are particularly likeable, but it was a solid book and an enjoyable read.

The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman
I started reading this after watching a couple of episodes of the TV series. The book, as seems always the case, is much better than the dramatisation. It’s epic in scale, intelligent and tightly plotted. My least favourite of the trilogy, but it gets prize place because it led me on to the rest.

Tampa, by Alissa Nutting
No idea how I found this one. Celeste Price is young high school teacher with sexual proclivities for her students. It’s obscene, explicit and dark; but funny in a weird way. The protagonist is intensely scary and unpredictable. Very different from anything else that I read this year and I’m glad I read it. Can’t imagine that it was an easy sell to publishers though.

The Art of Noticing, by Rob Walker
What did we do when stood in a queue before we had mobile phones? Buggered if I can remember, but it was a long time ago. Rob Walker is on a mission to help us remember, with a book full of tips and activities designed to help us reconnect with the world around us. It includes activities like urban exploration, photo walks, taking the long way, and ‘Let a Stranger Lead you’ – where you follow a stranger around for a bit. I enjoyed that one, apart from the restraining order bit.

The full list of books from 2019 is here.


Narrowing of perspective

In relative peace and prosperity we settle into micromanaging our lives with our fancy technologies and custom interest rates and eleven different kinds of milk, and this leads to a certain inwardness, an unchecked narrowing of perspective, the vague expectation that even if we don’t earn them and nurture them the truly essential amenities will endure forever as they are. We trust that someone else is looking after the civil liberties shop, so we don’t have to. Our military might is unmatched and in any case the madness is at least an ocean away. And then all of a sudden we look up from ordering paper towels online to find ourselves delivered right into the madness. And we wonder: How did this happen?

Ezra Baker in Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday


Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport

Cal Newport’s second book, Digital Minimalism, is somewhat timely given the increasing concern about the role of technology in our lives. In it, he asks us to look critically at the technology we allow into our lives as individuals and consider whether it adds genuine value, or whether we use it as a crux to pass time which would be better spent doing something else.

Top of his hit list is social media, which he argues most people simply do not need & those that do need it probably need it a lot less than they think they do ( he says 20 – 30 minutes a week, tops). In 2015 I closed my accounts on the big social media platforms and am embarrassed to admit how difficult I found it. On reflection it hasn’t made any meaningful difference to my life. True, there are people that I have lost contact with, but I still talk to the people that matter and the level of that contact is more substantial than a ‘like’ or a quick comment.

He goes on to set out the merits of of solitude – being alone with your thoughts without external interference. We’ve become so accustomed to filling every spare minute with something: checking social media feeds, reading emails, listening to podcasts and audiobooks – we very rarely allow or brains the time to just think. This something that we don’t fully understand the long term effect of.

He also makes a case for analogue activities. Humans are happier, he says, when they are creating something. We should prioritise demanding activities over passive consumption and cultivate high quality leisure activities – things that are meaningful and have defined outcomes.

It’s a good book and there isn’t a lot of waffle in it. It isn’t anti-technology, it just reminds us that we are the masters of our own time and need to take responsibility for how we use it. It was persuasive enough for me to reset my iPhone and ruthlessly cull and lock down my apps.

Definitely worth a read.


A Year of Reading: 2017

I don’t know how it happened but the stats don’t lie; I read more books last year than in any year since I started counting.

Books: Audiobooks: Pages:
48 3 24174

It’s tough to choose favorites in a year full of so many good books, but here’s a couple that stood out:

Favourite Fiction Book

Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett

I like churches and I like history; so a book about a man who sets about to build the worlds greatest gothic cathedral in 12th century England is right up my street.

This is a huge book of over a thousand pages. The author has done his research too. He skilfully weaves fact and fiction so tightly that it’s difficult to separate them.

I knew the village an its inhabitants so well by the time the book came to a close that I felt a brief pang of grief. A brilliant book and one I will definitely return to.

Favourite Non-Fiction Book

Getting things Done, by David Allen

There’s been so much written about this book already that nothing can be gained by saying any more.

I’ve not managed to become an effective practitioner of GTD but I’m working at it, and the results so far have shown that it’s a goal worth pursuing.

Previous Years:

Year Books Audiobooks Pages Total
2016 36 8 20584 45
2015 34 14494 34
2014 42 18537 42
2013 31 12576 31
2012 29 10974 29


Replacing Goodreads

Goodreads is a social book cataloging site. At its most basic level it allows users to maintain a virtual library of the books they read. Users can rate and review books & participate in discussion groups. It was founded in 2007 and has around fifty million users.

I’ve been using Goodreads over the past seven years to keep a record of the books that I read. Over the past year I have been trying to reduce my Internet footprint; closing my accounts on all of the major social networks and in general just trying to keep as much of my data under my control as possible. Goodreads has been selected as the latest one to be led to the guillotine. I thought about this one a lot; it’s pretty harmless, doesn’t suck up mountains of time and I’ve had the account for years. It was a bigger wrench than closing my Facebook or Twitter accounts.

I do value the data that I’ve given to Goodreads, and I want to carry on maintaining it once the account is closed. Jamie Todd Rubin has created some crazy clever python scripts to parse and present data from a list of books held in a markdown file. I exported my data from Goodreads, bodged it into markdown format and used my very limited python knowledge to adjust his scripts so that I can track progress towards my annual goal.

The scripts are available from Jamie’s github repository. Take a look.

Here’s some sample output:

Year                                                    Books Pages
2017 ###############################+#+########           42  19732
2016 #####@#@#@########@####+#@####@#######@@#####        45  20584
2015 ##################################                   34  14494
2014 ##########################################           42  18537
Total                                                    163  73347

Statistical Summary
===================

Reading goal for 2017: 50
Years: 4
Books: 163

- Paper (+): 3
- Ebook (#): 152
- Audio (@): 8

Avg books/year: 40
Avg pages/year: 18336
Avg pages/book: 449

So, one more social network scrubbed off my list, I managed to export my data, and I’ve got a nerdy way to keep it up to date going forward. I’ll chalk that one up as a win.


Review: Deep Work, by Cal Newport

Deep Work: Rules for Success in a Distracted World is Cal Newport’s fifth published book. Cal is thirty three years old, a father of two young children, an assistant professor at Georgetown University and author of multiple academic journals. It’s fair to say that Cal Newport is a very productive person. He attributes this to a single key skill: the ability to sustain long periods of ininterrupted high focus. He calls this ‘Deep Work’.

Cal argues that modern life has created a population who are suckers for distraction. Our concentration is under constant attack from the lure or the twenty four hour news cycle and the never-ending stream of notifications from social portals such as Facebook and Twitter. This fragmentation of our attention and concentration, he argues, leads to a failure to reach our potential at work and home because we are unable to achieve ‘depth’ in our approach to difficult problems. I find Cal a little over zealous in his approach but there is no denying that there is much to learn from this book, especially for people like me who struggle to maintain productivity for extended periods of time in an environment which is prone to interruptions from various sources.

Those that read Cal’s Study Hacks blog won’t find massive amount of new information in this book, but for those that don’t it is a good primer of his philosophy towards meaningful work in a distracted world. The book is aimed at knowledge workers. I’m not sure who this group of people are, but there are plenty of strategies that I can, should and will apply to my own work. Worth a read. I award it four stars.

Deep Work: Rules for Success in a Distracted World is available from Amazon for £7.99 on Kindle.


Review: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

I have a love hate relationship with Mr Stevenson and I’ve started more than one of his books and given up. At nearly a thousand pages, this is an ambitious and daunting volume.

The novel explores the fate of the human race after a mysterious ‘Agent’ shatters the moon into several pieces and renders the earth uninhabitable. The book can be fairly neatly broken into three sections: we meet the main characters watch as the world plans for survival in space, then we follow their experiences post-destruction as they adapt to life without their home planet, and finally jump forward five thousand years into the future as the descendants of our protagonists are planning a return to the earth. It is clear that Mr Stevenson has done his homework. There are reams of technical monologues in the book and whilst you might enjoy them if you have a keen interest in the deeper concepts of orbital mechanics, DNA splicing or robot swarm theory, I had to skim the denser description whilst hoping that I wouldn’t miss something crucial to the plot (I didn’t).

On the whole this was an interesting take on a very feasible future for the human race and anyone that enjoys post-apocalyptic fiction and hardcore sci-fi should at least give it a look. Just don’t get too hung up on all the technical stuff.