Books Read in 2005, Part I
Part II is here.
1. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell.
Wow! What a page-turner! Gladwell writes with refreshing briskness and informality in a book about studies, statistics, experiments, and theory. This book is stuffed with fascinating studies and real-world examples that contradict 'common sense' and show us how social epidemics are triggered, how they spread, and how to start positive social epidemics of our own. While reading, I was struck by how well blogs have illustrated Gladwell's principles and 'characters' (archetypes necessary for a social epidemic). I never would've thought I'd be so engrossed by a 20-page chapter about Sesame Street and Blue's Clues. Highly Recommended.
2. A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey by Brian D. McLaren
After the engaging efficiency of The Tipping Point, I was initially irritated by the wandering nature of this book, which follows a fictional conversation about 'Christian postmodernism' over several months. The author has many gems of discovery and wisdom to offer, and he could have presented them as efficiently as Gladwell in The Tipping Point, but instead he buried things in a messy narrative, a string of half-finished dialogues. But this is actually the beauty of the book: Christian postmodernism is an ethereal, mostly undefined concept that rejects the surgical analysis and overconfident intellectualism of 'Christian modernism' (evangelicalism) in favor of a 'living faith.' The result is messy, just like the book (and, not coincidentally, real life), but both offer a wonderful new way to be a Christian - one driven not by by stagnant (but comfortable) boxes and rules, but by a passion for Christ and an 'organic' faith. I know now why the book is presented as "a tale of two friends on a spiritual journey," instead of an all-answers manifesto: McLaren doesn't have all the answers. Instead, he is embarking on a journey with all Christians who are curious about a new kind of Christian (important: not "the new kind of Christian"). The new perspective this book has given me also causes me to grieve over the way I handled some earlier discussions on Listology. If you're not a Christian, this is not for you (yet!); if you are a Christian - of any kind - then: Highly Recommended.
3. Double Your Dating by David DeAngelo
At this rate, I'll have 100 books read by next year! Anyway: as you might suspect, this is a poorly-written rehashing of 'girl advice' articles from men's magazines that begs for sales by telling guys what they want to hear: women are easily manipulated, physical attractiveness and money don't matter, women are powerless, etc. Still, the best lie is a half-truth, and a compilation of the truth fragments within would result in a useful, if brief and hole-filled, guide to successful dating. Watch Rodger Dodger instead. Not Recommended.
4. The Power of Intention: Learning to Co-Create Your World Your Way by Wayne W. Dyer
I barely made it through this one alive. At least Double Your Dating was short, brisk, and occasionally amusing. This book seems devoted to transforming straightforward, common sense wisdom into confusing semantic babble ("In mathematics, two angles that are said to coincide fit together perfectly. The word coincidence does not describe luck or mistakes. It describes that which fits together perfectly. By combining free will with intention, you harmonize with the universal mind"). Anyway, I've got a shortcut. Step one: Know what you want to do. Step two: Do it. That's all you need to know. If it's not, then what you need certainly is not anywhere in this book. Definitely Not Recommended.
5. The Story We Find Ourselves In: Further Adventures of a New Kind of Christian by Brian D. McLaren
The Sequel to A New Kind of Christian is, on the surface, not so different from its predecessor, and it's failure only makes sense when attributed to several simultaneous factors. In the last book, McLaren embarked on a journey of questions. But in this book, McLaren preaches only answers, through the character Neo, with the other characters immediately praising his genius. McLaren's constant self-congratulation is irritating, especially when I don't agree with his points. I thought I wanted answers, in retrospect I prefer the questions. Furthermore, McLaren has increased the time devoted simply to narrative. Who are you kidding, McLaren? Nobody's reading this for a piece of good fiction (and it's not); this was always a 'spiritual lifestyle' book. And while there are some interesting points within, there is less insight in whole chapters of this book than in one page of A New Kind of Christian. Not Recommended.
6. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: Film Writings 1965-1967 by Pauline Kael
Yes, I read every page, cover to cover! Legendary film critic Pauline Kael, like Malcolm Gladwell, is smarter and more well-thought than most of us, but has the sense to write what she knows or feels in a way that makes her work accessible to 'mere mortals.' She's just as readable as Ebert, and far more interesting. As you might imagine, though, some of her essays and reviews are more currently relevant than others. Recommended.
7. Evolution : The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory by Edward J. Larson
This is probably the best (real) introduction to the theory of evolution I could've had. The history of evolution is an amazing one, and Larson tells it, for the most part, fully and fairly. It's occasionally too technical for it's own good, however; there were a multitude of paragraphs that I had to reread several times to comprehend, as Larson uses terms like 'allopatric speciation' and 'interspecific morphological variation' without explaining them. The book also, regrettably but understandably, does not discuss the last decade of developments (the edition I read was released in 2004), probably because sufficient perspective on them has not yet been attained. I mostly came away with the awareness that modern evolutionary theory is a very new and immature one with fundamentally important refinements still being made - which only waxes my marveling at its popularity. Recommended.
8. Persepolis : The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi
I can't say it better than French magazine Liberation: "A triumph... Like Maus, Persepolis is one of those comic books capable of seducing even those most allergic to the genre." This is the funny and wrenching tale of Satrapi's childhood in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. The art style is minimalist, and the story moves quickly, but it's packed with excitement, humor, insight, history, culture, and emotion. (I was moved to tears 3 times in the brief time it took me to read it.) This could also make a great movie. Highly Recommended.
9. The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations by James Surowiecki
Surowiecki's study on group intelligence is a Tipping Point clone - and I mean that in a very good way. Unfortunately, it's not quite as successful because it's messier (perhaps due to the subject matter, perhaps due to failings of the author), less coherent as a whole, and, therefore, less memorable. It reads well, but putting the big pieces together is a bit tricky, and Surowiecki doesn't help us do so as much as he should have. A good book that a couple more rewrites could've made great. Recommended.
10. Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi
Oh what a relief, this is just as good as the first one! We follow 'Marji' through her adventures with freedom, drugs, and love in Europe, and then her return to Iran, schooling, and marriage. It's touching, it's fast-paced, it's eye-opening, and it's not to be missed. Highly Recommended.
11. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
I heard this on a flash player checked out from the library. The batteries they gave me only lasted a half hour per charge! But I finally made it through. Anyway, the book: I don't read enough sci-fi to know if it's imaginative or not, but I like the color-coded paths and other very practical technologies. And while the writing is fairly pedestrian, stars children, and uses the word 'fart' more times than I care to hear the word in a lifetime, Orson Scott Card has made it very easy to love his novel, and I did. Highly Recommended.
12. In the Shadow of No Towers by Art Spiegelman
I had to read this one twice. The first time, I didn't understand everything, but I knew something marvelous was passing before my eyes - a bit like watching Un Chien Andalou. The second time, I understood most of it, and recognized it as a kind of surrealist masterpiece. Unfortunately, the early comics tacked-on at the end do not add to Spiegelman's objectives as he intended, and they seem like filler to an admittedly short book. If you like comics, this is for you. If you don't, you'll just as likely be bewildered as anything else. Recommended.
13. Climbing Mount Improbable by Richard Dawkins
I admire Dawkins for writing this book, and several of the reasons it doesn't work are not his fault. The chapters that describe primitive computer simulations are of little use now, and many of Dawkins' arguments pertain little to climbing Mount Improbable - but that is sometimes because the arguments he's counterpointing are no longer used (perhaps, because of this book?). The biggest problem, though, is that Dawkins has attempted to argue what cannot yet be well argued. Quite simply, most of the book is filled with wild assumptions. Most questions of 'How did this work?' are answered by, 'We really don't know yet. But maaaaaybe...' - and that's not very convincing. For a theory so dependent on scientific evidence, there is little to be found. (For example, the entirety of scientists' 'knowledge' on ape-to-human forms - 300 million years of human development, 2 genera, and more than a dozen species - is based on a mound of fossils that wouldn't fill the bed of a pickup truck and a whole lot of arbitrary assumptions.) I marvel at the faith of evolutionists that their theory is correct despite a nearly complete lack of real evidence - indeed, their faith may surpass that of most Christians who believe in creationism purely through faith. In short, there wasn't enough relevant material (mostly chapters 3, 4, and 10) to make this book worth it. It hasn't aged well. Not Recommended.
14. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Perhaps a reason so many students change their majors several times during their higher education is that nothing excites them - especially in the scientific fields - so they choose a field mostly on the basis of job availability and pay. If schools taught with something like this book (and then filled out the information with details and practical applications), young people would be excited about science. With 'A History of Nearly Everything,' Bryson has done what he intended; he has made science what it rarely is - exciting, fun, and memorable. Had I read something like this in 7th grade, I might be majoring in chemistry or physics right now. Highly Recommended.
15. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
Some books claim you can read its chapters in any order, but this one means it. Each tiny chapter is a nugget of wisdom for writing often and well. It needs a second edition: "I can imagine using a Macintosh, where the keyboard can be put on my lap, closing my eyes and just typing away. The computer automatically returns the carriage. The device is called "wrap-around." You can rap nonstop. You don't have to worry about the typewriter ringing a little bell at the end of a line." Recommended.
16. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell
Not even a fever of 102.6 degrees and 53 sleepless hours could keep me from reading this in less than a day. Malcolm Gladwell is the most readable and fascinating author I've read, and with Blink, he's hit another one out of the park. If you want to be entertained, intrigued, and make better, quicker decisions - or any of those - read this now. Highly Recommended.
17. Evolution vs. Creationism : An Introduction by Eugenie C. Scott
If you're looking for a dry but very complete classroom book introduction to the evolution vs. creationism debate, this is for you. If you've already read several evolution books in the past month, like me, you're going to be bored with half of it. Information is even repeated several times within the book itself, though - most notably in the early historical chapters and the later concluding 'legal issues' section. It didn't contain enough new information for me, and didn't answer my questions, but I can't really fault the book itself too much for that. Taken for what it is, I'll let it off with a barely passing grade: Recommended.
18. A Gap in Nature: Discovering the World's Extinct Animals by Tim F. Flannery, Peter Schouten
After a wonderful but frightening introduction, we are treated with a few dozen gorgeous and anatomically precise illustrations of mammals, birds, and reptiles that have become extinct since the 1500s, starting with the Upland Moa in 1500 and ending with the Atitlan Grebe in 1989. Each illustration is accompanied by a few paragraphs that describe all that is known about the animal, how it went extinct, and what record we have of it. I've done my best to scan some of my favorites for you: the Choiseul Crested-pigeon, the Crescent Nailtail Wallaby, the Cuban Red Macaw, the Desert Rat-kangaroo, and, of course, the Dodo. I would've liked to see more variety, though - half the illustrations were of very similar small birds, large lizards, and long-tailed mice. Recommended.
19. Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences by John Allen Paulos
I hated virtually every subject in high school. They were all so tedious and inapplicable. Now, thanks to 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' and 'Innumeracy,' subjects like physics, chemistry, mathematics, and biology are exciting and relevant. The question that naturally follows is, What the fuck was I being taught in high school? Obviously, I did not lack the ability to appreciate scientific and mathematical education. Rather, the education was lacking. I knew it all along: high school is a waste - at least, the one I had was a waste. Maybe if I'd gone to a state school that offered car repair and carpentry classes, I could've gotten a little something out of it. Well, anyway, I am no longer wholly innumerate! Are you? Highly Recommended.
20. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
Mary Roach is a funny, fascinating writer, and her subject here could hardly be more... interesting. Yes, it's quite 'gross' at times, but never so much that you don't want to read the next page. Did you know that normal decomposition or even cremation is just as disgusting as dissection, or that human head transplants are quite possible? Of course, Mary Roach doesn't stop there: she even discusses cannibalism. The life of human cadavers is far more varied and interesting than I'd ever have imagined. Highly Recommended.
21. Complete Idiot's Guide to Songwriting by Joel Hirschhorn
This is a waste of time and space with no songwriting instruction whatsoever and lots of insipid tips like 'write with a #2 pencil' and 'numbers are always popular in titles' and 'look upon rewriting as a pleasure, not a chore.' In fact, the entire first chapter and parts of other chapters are devoted to telling you where else to look to learn good songwriting. It's also focused directly on writing a 'perfectly crafted hit song,' and using every popular device possible to write a pop song, with no consideration for artful songwriting. Do people actually buy these kinds of books? If so, I've found my path to fortune. I'll just copy-and-paste a bunch of tips on - oh, who cares - gardening, put cute character icons in the margins, and make a hundred grand. Definitely Not Recommended.
22. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Ah, so this is what critics mean when they call a novel "devestating." This book, a fictional series of anonymous letters telling a teen's high school life, doesn't read like a collection of real letters because real letters are boring, incoherant, unstructured, unpoetic, and often incomprehensible. But this is a great book. It speaks of characters and experiences that we all know - or we know someone who knows them. Also, it's terribly honest on so many subjects where honesty is rare. The other reasons for this book's greatness cannot fit in a 'mini-review.' Had I read this book when I was 12, it probably would've been my 'favorite book ever.' Magically, this is the only great book I've ever read that made me feel better about my own literary potential. Highly Recommended.
23. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
This is an entirely different sort of 'so bad it's good': unlike Wallflower, Catcher sounds like real speech and real writing. Yet somehow, it's just as riveting and 'devestating' (sorry) as the impeccably edited and refined Wallflower. How Salinger pulled it off is beyond me, but there it is: on every page. And Sweet Merciful Yahweh, how is this still so 'edgy'? Amazing. And, surprisingly timeless - something Wallflower won't quite be. Best line ever: "Get your dirty stinking moron knees off my chest." Highly Recommended.
24. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
I must be missing something. It's a decent book, but not an impressively strong one. There's some neat Einsteinian theory and the WWII/sci-fi mix was fun, but I can't figure out why this shows up on 'greatest novels' lists. (Merely) Recommended.
25. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
I think this is one of the best stories, just below Hamlet and Don Quixote and company. It's even better when you see it in your mind, directed by Carl Dreyer. Highly Recommended.
26. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Yep, it's long. And I didn't appreciate the extended scientific whale babble. But otherwise, it's much better than I even thought it was going to be. Like everything from that time, it sounds stuffy compared to modern styles, but I can't say it feels aged. A masterpiece of narration, description, commentary and character. The final battle was more epic and exciting than I was expecting. Highly Recommended.
27. The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
This doesn't 'show off' as a singular artistic triumph like Catcher in the Rye. Instead, it's a marvelous example of artful craft. It's the kind of book that is supremely great, and makes you wonder why all modern novels can't be this good - because the could be, they're just not. BTW, I didn't read this, I was read it, by John Lithgow in a fantastic performance that only helped me appreaciate this book more. Highly Recommended.
28. Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus: A Practical Guide for Improving Communication and Getting What You Want in Your Relationships by John Gray
I figured this is one of those books everyone will expect you've read. In fact, it was/is so popular that I found I was vaguely aware of many of its precepts without having read the book because they have seeped into our culture so well. But it's amazing how easy it is to forget how the opposite sex thinks in a completely different way than you do. This should probably be on every couple's bedside stand to skim over every other night. I'm not even in a serious romantic relationship, and it's probably the most useful book I've read. And now I'm even angrier at today's education system. Learning about Byzantine history or subatomic particles can be fun but isn't useful to 99% of us. A book like this is incredibly useful several times each day for all of us. Still, I have to hope there's a better-written book that contains some version of all this useful information. John Gray's book is humorless and classroomy, which surprised me in a mega-popular book about relationships with a catchy title. Recommended.
29. Mister O by Lewis Trondheim
This book gives me hope that I could make a comic book if I wanted. It involves simple stick figures crossing a small chasm. Mister O always fails. Too bad it's not funny. Not Recommended.
30. Microsoft Word Version 2002 Step By Step by Perspection Inc.
Does this count? I don't know - at this point it's not going to make or break my goal of 50 books this year, so I'll include it for completness' sake. Is it good? Sure, I dunno - I passed the exam it prepares one for, so I guess it's good enough. Of course, it'll be no use whatsoever to people who don't want to me certified in Microsoft Word. Recommendation Irrelevant.